The scene in an Iroquois High School conference room Wednesday morning isn’t exactly what you’d expect in the middle of state testing week.
Banished from their normal classroom so it can be used for testing, four students gather around an oblong wooden table, counting. Stacks of assorted clothing, rows of toothpaste and piles of colorful toothbrushes are crammed together as the students add more donations from boxes and bags scattered on the floor.
It’s relatively quiet, aside from an “Oh, this is really cute” and murmurs of approval when one student, Faith Wilson, pulls an eggplant-colored prom dress from a donation box.
It is the final day of a donation drive for Louisville’s homeless population. The student-led initiative, tied to the Lead2Feed community service program, aimed to collect 150 items. They surpassed that goal on the second day of the drive.
Now, their focus was clear: Don’t let the teachers out-donate the students.
In the office outside, an assistant principal asked Carla Kent, a college access resource teacher and the group’s mentor, how the faculty were faring in the competition. “Oh no, we’re in trouble,” she responds with a laugh.
Eating an apple in the corner, Serenia Morrow joked she would give up her shoes to extend the students’ lead. “We cannot lose,” she said.
Soon after, another faculty member arrived at the conference room with a box of 140 individually wrapped toothbrushes. Are these going to count for the kids or the adults, one student asked. The staff member paused before saying adults, almost knowing the donation would push the faculty into the lead.
“Noooo!” two students, Zoe Simmons and Wilson, scream.
While the end moments of a weeklong competition created a hive of energy, the logic behind the project goes deeper.
Around 5% of Jefferson County Public Schools students are homeless, according to district data. Iroquois High School has one of the largest homeless populations in the district. The group’s de facto leader, 16-year-old Morrow, experienced it personally.
Wednesday morning, Morrow was lively, constantly cracking jokes and leading the group’s laughter. Others joked about her “16 personalities,” some of which come out in overlapping layers. But weeks ago when she pitched the donation drive idea to the principal Clay Holbrook, Morrow said she cried.
Her family used to bounce from house to house, sometimes not being sure where food or stability would come from. “I know what it feels like,” she said during a break in counting and organizing donations.
Others in the group dealt with different barriers to success. One works full-time. Another didn’t get a message about the meet-up Wednesday because they turned off their phone to save money for a family car payment.
The 11-person team set their goal for the drive low — 150 items — because they didn’t want students to feel guilty if they couldn’t afford to donate. But after visits to every classroom, fierce competition and prizes for winning first period classes, the drive has brought in over 800 items. One student openly wondered if they would hit 1,000 items by the end of the day.
“We’ve had a big impact,” multiple students said reflecting on the project. Students can make a difference, another added.
Next week, they’ll take the donated clothing, shoes and personal care items to Wayside Christian Mission. In early June, they’ll hear if they placed in the larger Lead2Feed competition against other service projects.
Sometimes Iroquois gets a bad reputation, the students said. But there is good in the school, they said.
“Don’t let anyone tell you there is not good,” Kent said.