The Roots of the Pantry Plus More: How a Young Man Founded a Program that’s Ending Hunger

From a very young age, Roark Sizemore had the seeds of volunteerism planted in him. He refers to his mom, Christine Wang, as the real guiding light in his compassion for others that led him to volunteering. Her example — the way she’s given her time, money, and love to people her entire life — has had a significant impact on Roark.

Since Roark was a young boy, Christine took him along to almost everything she did and helped him find a role that taught him leadership by trusting him with responsibility. Roark recalls pouring drinks and seeing his mom casually put a tray under his area, occasionally wiping any spills with paper towels. He remembers Christine teaching him how to lay out desserts on a table, offering suggestions but never criticizing or taking over. Roark said he watched and learned as his mom took on any and all jobs, whether that meant cleaning bathrooms or giving out prizes.

When Roark was in seventh grade, the seeds of volunteerism started to sprout. His middle school principal told Roark there was a need for Energy Express volunteers, so Roark served by helping children with reading.

Once again, Christine was there, transporting Roark and his friends who were also volunteering and helping them with paperwork. Roark said she listened to him and his peers and gave them advice on how to reach the children who were struggling. One tip Roark remembers was to eat breakfast and lunch with them.

During that same school year, Roark and his recreational league basketball team decided they wanted to do something to help the church where they practiced. They learned about Circle of Friends, a group in Morgantown, West Virginia, that serves food on the weekends to anyone who needs it. This became an activity all 10 boys enjoyed; they were learning to cook and serving their community. Roark’s spirit of volunteerism had grown into a seedling.

While volunteering at a meal hosted by Circle of Friends, Roark saw one of his classmates, a young man who needed food for himself and his three younger siblings. It was that moment —when he saw a peer who attended the same school and even did the same homework — that caused the volunteerism seedling to grow into a plant, firmly rooted in Roark’s being.

During high school, the volunteerism branched out to leadership. Roark joined the service club, Hi-Y, and later became its president for two years. He grew the club to nearly 200 members. Roark’s goal became to introduce kids his age to volunteer possibilities, while making it fun, just like his mom had done.

Over the next few years, they volunteered at themed runs like Color Me Rad, did Habitat for Humanity building projects, tutored kids, participated in the WVU Medicine Children’s Heart Hustle Dance-a-Thon, and served with Energy Express — all while continuing to volunteer at the dinners prepared by Circle of Friends.

Each year, Roark participated in a statewide Youth in Government program, an opportunity that eventually led to him serving as the Youth Governor of West Virginia. Thanks to his volunteer and government experiences, Roark believed he could make real changes and impact the most vulnerable lives in his community.

Roark’s advisor, Tom Bloom, believed it, too. Tom had been at the Circle of Friends meals, and he and Roark were shocked to see how many young people were waiting for a hot meal. They discussed how they could help, but the a-ha moment came when Tom read a story about a North Carolina school with a cost-free, anonymous pantry. Tom shared it with Roark, and they knew they had a solution. Roark and Tom admired how the North Carolina principal knew his students and what they needed, and he was doing something about it.

Roark had some conversations with his teachers and discovered that some of them were already doing a version of a pantry quietly in their classrooms. Without any hesitation, Roark and Tom decided they wanted to start a program in Monongalia County.

The idea for Pantry Plus More had blossomed.

Together, Roark and Tom developed a vision for school-based pantries, stocked with non-perishable foods, toiletry items, feminine hygiene products, school supplies, and clothing. They envisioned students using the pantries, simply by talking to a teacher, counselor, or administrator and letting them know they would like to “shop.”

Roark and Tom wanted students to get what they needed privately and discreetly — a measure that would always preserve their dignity.

Toward the ending of Roark’s senior year, in March 2016, Roark and Tom were ready to open their first pantries. By looking at the statistics for free and reduced meals, they identified two pilot schools in Monongalia County with the greatest needs — Mason Dixon Elementary and South Middle.

In-school pantries guaranteed that children would have easy access to what they needed and the transportation to take it home, all without depending on an adult. The Pantry Plus More continues to use the free and reduced meal program as a guideline for need today.

While there was initially concern some children would take more than they needed, the opposite proved to be true. Children had to be encouraged to take more. One second-grader refused to take more than one item, saying, “All of my friends are hungry, too.”

The pantry volunteers also didn’t realize how badly feminine hygiene products were needed. In fact, a number of girls miss as many as six days of school every month because they do not have adequate supplies of feminine products at home. While volunteers were bringing in supplies, one young girl grabbed a box of tampons, tearfully asking if she could have them before they could even put them on the shelf.

To expand the Pantry Plus More into the program they envisioned, Roark and Tom knew they had to focus on funding. With Roark now attending West Virginia University as an undergraduate student, Roark and Tom obtained a $3,000 grant from the WVU Student Government.

It was the beginning of a partnership between high school students, the community, and WVU.

An official nonprofit organization with a board, the Pantry Plus More received 501(c)3 status from the IRS in late 2016. By adding new schools to its roster every year, the Pantry Plus More is now open in 11 schools.

But, Roark, Tom, Christine and the Pantry Plus More team are not done yet. They plan to continue growing the Pantry Plus More in Monongalia County — adding branches to this strong program that is leading the community in ending hunger, giving every child an equal opportunity to succeed in learning.