It’s been said that despite all the bad things that came from the COVID-19 pandemic, some good things would eventually come out of those two-plus years the world spent in limbo.

Consider the Table 20 initiative at Cooper High School one of those good things.

When schools, which were shut down in March 2020 because of the pandemic, re-opened in August 2020, Cooper Student Council director Jimmy Pogue knew his group’s annual service trip to Chinle, Arizona, was probably in jeopardy. Indeed, the next month, the trip was canceled, leaving his group to come up with another way to make an impact on those in need.

Instead of looking outside of Abilene, the Cooper Student Council looked at its campus where students and their families were hurting from food insecurity because of the pandemic. So, Pogue and his group began working to fill that need, enlisting the help of faculty and staff on campus to donate canned and dry goods that could be stored and then handed out to families in need.

The Student Council handed out its first box of food to a family on Oct. 30, 2020, and on Oct. 27, 2022, the group handed out its 275th box. In 24 months, they’ve averaged giving out 11.5 boxes per month to families of students on campus and families in the Abilene community.

“We had some people who were a little bit skeptical at first, but the seniors that year fostered the growth in everyone to make this a thing that works,” said senior Kai Rosario, who is the Student Council president this year and was a sophomore in 2020-21 when Table 20 got its start. “The seniors that year missed out on going to Chinle, and this was how we wanted to give back. It inspired the rest of us, and we became unified and wanted to make this happen.”

The group has received donations from community members and raised money by selling Table 20 T-shirts with all the proceeds going to buy items for the food pantry on campus. Pogue said the most frequent items given out are spaghetti noodles and spaghetti sauce, macaroni and cheese, rice and dry beans, and peanut butter. The group has also had individual community members buy turkeys to go with each holiday box during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The name of the initiative, Table 20, is taken from a song called “Come to the Table,” and the 20 is from the year 2020 when the group first began collecting items to hand out to those in need.

“The whole process is bittersweet,” Team Leader Lily Kovac said. “It’s hard to understand that there are so many people, not even just in our community but at our school itself – students that I have classes with regularly – who are struggling with food insecurity. It’s hard to understand that concept. But to know that we set in place this safe spot on campus for them to come to fulfill their need is extremely rewarding. The process has never been about us as a group, but about serving people in need.”

When the group handed out its 275th box earlier this year, Cooper principal Lyndsey Williamson told Pogue, “that’s a huge number. I’m sadly happy for this and that this number has come up.”

Most of those families who have been served have come from within the Cooper High School community, while still others aren’t connected to Cooper at all. Pogue recalled that one of the first families served lived in “one of the nicest homes you’ll see.” But a cancer diagnosis and a job loss in the same week put the family in a hard spot, and one of the children, a student at Cooper, turned to Table 20 for help.

“The most fulfilling thing is that you never know who will need our help,” Senior Class Representative Kamune Mrisho said. “You never know what people are going through, and it’s sad sometimes to see people who need food. I hope it continues to provide for people and that it can expand even more. We want people to know that we are here for them.”

For more than 20 years the CHS Student Council left a lasting impression on the people of Chinle, Arizona, with the work it has done in that Native American community. But Pogue said he hopes that Table 20 will be what his group is known for, rather than the Chinle mission trip.

“I think this is as important as Chinle,” he said. “To have people in the community come out and donate food or their time or whatever … I believe this might be what I hang my hat on. I’ve always said that anybody can get on a bus. But this is different because it’s every day. We work this at least three days a week, and it’s year-round. I usually carry a box in my truck so that if someone calls and needs help, we can get it to them. This is local, and it’s serving Cooper High School and it’s serving Abilene.”

NOTE: If you or someone you know is struggling with food insecurity and could use the help of the Cooper High School Student Council and its Table 20 initiative, please use the QR code at the bottom of this story or click on the link to fill out a form to let them know of your need. Any information you leave on the form will be kept strictly confidential.