A new organization in Sunbury has taken on the role of helping those in need during the Big Walnut Local School District’s closure.

In late January, Big Walnut became a site for Neighborhood Bridges, a nonprofit charity headquartered in Westerville with the mission of lending a hand to children and families.

In the wake of statewide school closings related to COVID-19 coronavirus, the local organization – called Big Walnut Bridges – encourages those in the community to come forward to seek assistance for a neighbor in need, said Big Walnut school nurse Megan Truax, a Bridges organizer.

That assistance can include picking up and delivering groceries for a neighbor, delivering meals, cutting grass or doing yardwork, or providing tutoring support to children via phone or FaceTime, she said.

The Big Walnut Local School District will provide breakfast and lunch kits the week of March 30, and Truax said Bridges is preparing additional kits available to anyone in need.

“We will have them available during our district kit pickup and we can deliver to anyone else who requests,” she said.

Bridges can be reached by messaging the “Big Walnut Bridges” Facebook page.

“We continue to adjust while taking into account the orders set forth by the governor with addressing the needs our community,” Truax said.

Big Walnut Bridges formed before the COVID-19 threat emerged, she said.

By early this year, Truax said, she had seen an increasing number of children affected by what she called “suburban poverty.”

Nearly 16% of Big Walnut students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, she said.

“As a school nurse, I see the impact (of being economically disadvantaged) on students’ ability to learn in class,” Truax said.

“If a kid has a toothache and no dental insurance, (he or she) cannot focus in class. If parents don’t have insurance, it might be a hardship that can’t be addressed. Vision insurance is not something everyone has. If a child needs glasses and cannot see in class, or his glasses are broken, it has a great impact,” she said.

In the days following its launch, Big Walnut Bridges provided assistance to 10 individuals, Truax said.

“We are just delighted to include Big Walnut Local Schools,” said Neighborhood Bridges founder Rick Bannister.

“They have mobilized very quickly,” he said. “It’s been really amazing to see how many elements of the community come together in support of this initiative.

“Our model is that 100% of what’s raised in a community stays in that community. We’re really proud of that,” he said.

Truax said Neighborhood Bridges protects the identities of those who receive assistance.

Before the school district closed, Neighborhood Bridges used advocates – such as a counselors, nurses, administrators, mental health specialists or secretaries – to refer situations of need to Neighborhood Bridges.

When advocates knew of a need, they notified Truax or Julie Adams, a Sunbury resident and former New Albany teacher leading the volunteer effort with Truax.

If the request were for a pair of shoes, for example, the online posting would list the shoe size and whether they’re for a boy or girl, Truax said.

“People are great about sharing that on their personal Facebook pages,” she said.

If a posted need isn’t filled that day, all followers of the Big Walnut Bridges page and the website receive a message the next day to help spread the word.

Those who help fill a need are notified where the items can be dropped off. Building advocates deliver the items to students, Truax said.

Another option is to donate money to purchase a needed item.

As of early March, no need posted by Big Walnut Bridges had taken longer than 12 hours to fill – and one need was met in five minutes, Truax said.

“We have very generous and caring people in this community who don’t always know how to help,” she said. “This is an easy way.”

When someone needs assistance, she added, it’s nice when they don’t have to ask someone face to face for help, she said.

“We’re not here to re-create the wheel,” she said. “There are many good resources (in Big Walnut schools). We try to work together on these things.”

Big Walnut Superintendent Angie Hamberg said district leaders are “excited” by the community’s response to Big Walnut Bridges.

“We look forward to partnering with Neighborhood Bridges in providing hope, access, opportunity and inclusiveness for all of our students,” she said.

Truax said she learned about Neighborhood Bridges when her daughter and Bannister’s daughter were in the same soccer program.

Bannister said Neighborhood Bridges has 12 affiliated communities in Ohio and 14 in Alabama.

The latter groups formed following the efforts of Bannister’s brother, David Bannister, to launch that state’s first program in Hoover, Alabama.

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