Refugees help hungry neighbors in North Dakota: 'My family used to be in that same exact boat'

PHOTO: Legacy Childrens Foundations K.I.D.S. operation students sorting food in their food pantry in an undated photo.Mary Jean Dehne
Legacy Children's Foundation's K.I.D.S. operation students sorting food in their food pantry in an undated photo.

Students in Fargo, North Dakota have started a food pantry and delivery service to help their community, and for some of the teens who came to the U.S. as refugees, this kind of community service is personal.

"For my family, sometimes it's hard for us to get food. We're not homeless," Maria Modi, a Fargo North High school senior who came to the U.S. as a refugee from South Sudan, told ABC News. "My family used to be in that same exact boat."

Approximately 14.9 percent of the population in Fargo lives under the poverty line, nearly mirroring the national average, according to 2016 census data. A group of students is working to help people in need while gaining skills for life after graduation.

PHOTO: Students setting up their grocery store. Legacy Childrens Foundation runs their food pantry out of a garage and is set up like a makeshift grocery store for their K.I.D.S. operation. Mary Jean Dehne
Students setting up their grocery store. Legacy Children's Foundation runs their food pantry out of a garage and is set up like a makeshift grocery store for their K.I.D.S. operation.

Modi is among the students participating in the Legacy Children's Foundation program, which enables kids to get extra help in reading and math, encourages them to graduate high school, and promotes community service. Most of the program's students are refugees from places like Sudan, Nepal, Haiti, and more, said Mary Jean Dehne, the executive director of Legacy, who helped found the program in 2011.

"It was started by the kids and it is run by the kids," Dehne told ABC News.

In addition to volunteering in nursing homes or with elderly residents, this year, some of the students decided that they wanted to help feed people who are hungry in their community.

The students have divided their work into three separate projects: a food pantry open on Thursdays, soup and blankets for a local homeless shelter serving people with addiction issues, and a food delivery service for neighbors who need help getting groceries, said Dehne.

PHOTO: Legacy Childrens Foundation students making deliveries to families that need food in an undated photo. Mary Jean Dehne
Legacy Children's Foundation students making deliveries to families that need food in an undated photo.

In addition to helping others, the program has changed the lives of the students who participate in it, according to its acting president, Peter Santial. Santial said he graduated from college and returned to lead the program after participating in it himself.

"We are really blessed to be giving back," Santial said of the food pantry operation. "A lot of these kids are so happy to provide to the community, you can tell."

Santial said he was born in the U.S. after his parents fled Haiti.

"There's a misconception that the only people that are going hungry are homeless," he said.

PHOTO: Students from Legacy Childrens Foundation completing community service by making deliveries to hungry families that need help getting food on the table in undated photo.Mary Jean Dehne
Students from Legacy Children's Foundation completing community service by making deliveries to hungry families that need help getting food on the table in undated photo.

Modi said her family has sometimes struggled with food insecurity even though they have a home.

"Sometimes my mom would make food, and that’s the only thing she would make for the week and that’s what we would eat," said Modi, who is one of six children.

PHOTO: Students preparing for their food pantry operation aimed at feeding the hungry of Fargo, North Dakota in an undated photo.Mary Jean Dehne
Students preparing for their food pantry operation aimed at feeding the hungry of Fargo, North Dakota in an undated photo.

Dehne said the food pantry program focuses on providing people with protein like beef and chicken, but every week, they offer different foods to their patrons by teaming up with a local food bank.

This past week for Thanksgiving, the students were able to hand out turkeys and other holiday foods to their community, said Santial.

"It makes me so happy," said Modi. "I will never forget where I came from, so whatever I can do to give back, that's the best thing I can do."

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