Shouldering the load

Pastor Paul Thompson (center) and Mark Lawhorne (right) load food boxes into a truck while Eddie Hicks (yellow) looks on during an event at AdVance Academy on Thursday morning between the school and Gang Free Inc., which strive to give away at least 240 boxes each week.

HENDERSON — AdVance Academy has partnered with Gang Free Inc. to provide approximately 240 food boxes every Thursday to parents and teachers in need as they navigate their way through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Principal Stephanie Ayscue has seen the struggles thrust upon Vance County residents over the last year, which motivated her to team up with Gang Free to help alleviate some of the stress the AdVance Academy faculty and student body are experiencing.

“There are a lot of people right now who are without work or the resources they would normally have,” Ayscue said. “If the materials are available, there’s no need not to make sure they get to the community.”

Serving the community has been an integral value at AdVance Academy since the school’s inception, as even before the pandemic began in March middle schoolers frequently volunteered at organizations like Gang Free to help out other residents in Vance County.

Ayscue believes that everyone at AdVance Academy has done their best in adapting to changes like remote learning, but with the pandemic still creating financial strain for many families around North Carolina, she knew they needed assistance in regards to having food.

AdVance Academy would turn to Gang Free once again to start handing out food boxes last Thursday, with Ayscue adding that the school’s past relationship with Executive Director Melissa Elliott would enable the initiative to operate efficiently with little to no setbacks.

“We’ve always had a good working collaboration with Melissa Elliott,” Ayscue said. “She’s very easy to work with, but everyone at Gang Free Inc. is kind, generous and charitable, and they always have the community’s best interests at heart. Melissa and I put our minds together and we made this happen.”

Elliott, who has worked as a community liaison for AdVance Academy, was honored to partner with Ayscue once again and praised her efforts to ensure that the students at the facility are always cared for regardless of their situation.

Advance Academy “cares a lot about family,” Elliott said. “They care about their students and Stephanie is such a phenomenal leader. She loves to help and always goes above and beyond to help them out.”

The Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina has supplied Gang Free the food boxes for the giveaways. The boxes consist of a variety of items that included chicken, ground beef, beef hot dogs, oranges, potatoes and onions, along with dairy items like yogurt, milk and cheese.

On Thursday, Elliott and the community health workers added 1,000 boxes of Capri Sun to their normal giveaway, with each box consisting of around eight to 10 pouches. Gang Free also managed to get 60 local residents registered for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Gang Free and AdVance Academy have given away hundreds of food boxes in the two weeks since the partnership officially began, with Elliott adding that she and Ayscue intend to continue the weekly giveaways for as long as they can.

“We’re going to be doing this until the food bank says different,” Elliott said. “Because we’re able to pick up our own boxes, the food bank doesn’t have to go out of their way to deliver, and the community health workers driving the trucks and picking the boxes up at 7 a.m. and bringing them back here, so I think we’ll be doing this for the rest of the year.”

Outside of the food boxes, Elliott said that the next few weeks will be extremely busy for Gang Free, which will see them align with Vance County Schools and Rural Health Group through an event called Zumba with a Shot of Health. It will take place on Mar. 13 at a yet to be determined location and will help get 300 residents vaccinated.

Ayscue has been thrilled to see so many people come together to help one another during the pandemic, and is planning to organize similar events with Gang Free later in the year while increased vaccinations help decrease the number of COVID-19 cases.

“Each elementary school came by to receive boxes as well so the social workers could deliver them to homes that were in need,” Ayscue said. “The ability to offer those supplies to people is something they have enjoyed doing. This is all part of our calling.”

The food giveaways at AdVance Academy will take place every Thursday morning starting at 9 a.m.