When he was 11 years old, Cole Manschot did what most grass-roots activists do: He started knocking on doors in his neighborhood.
A Boy Scout wearing a vest dotted by shiny pins, Cole wanted his neighbors to donate to the local food pantry. The hard part was getting them to open their doors.
He didn't think much of the impact of his effort until his eighth-grade year at Franklin Middle School in Wheaton when he learned a bit more about mobilizing his peers.
Teaming with his sister, Devyn, at Wheaton North High School, the Manschot siblings collected about 1,500 pounds of food from their schools in a single day in their first major food drive. After unpacking the carloads of donations at the Milton Township Food Pantry, Cole realized they had lined the floor and every shelf in the pantry's sorting room.
"That impact just slaps you over the head," he said.
Then as a sophomore at Wheaton North, Devyn started Food Pantry Fridays, when students drop off food and toiletries during their first-period classes every Friday in March -- a time of year when donations to food pantries plunge after holiday giving. As a Girl Scout, Devyn had researched the effect the number of meals a student eats has on the student's academic performance. Seeing that students who went without regular meals performed poorly in school and knowing the success of the food collection she'd organized with Cole, she sprang on the idea of starting a regular food drive.
When his sister graduated, Cole began leading the program. Over the past six years, the siblings' efforts in and out of school have netted area pantries more than 13,000 pounds of food.
"It's a huge benefit for us because we are in dire need," said Jackie Jones, a senior caseworker at the Milton Township Food Pantry, which serves 200 households a month.
The daunting combination of increasing need and a tight supply strains the pantry, Jones says, especially because it doesn't receive any state money.
And more families are trying to stretch the allowance from the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps and administered through Link cards. That means the pantry has served some households with meals more than once a month, Jones said.
Such stories motivate Cole to keep looking for other students or clubs that will be willing to keep the program going when he graduates this year.
"If not, I hope people are just motivated to give and just reminded that our community still needs help," he said.
Cole strategizes for ways to expand the project. He writes letters to teachers. And acting on a suggestion by an assistant principal at Franklin, Cole offers tantalizing treats for students who donate.
The classroom that donates the most pounds of food celebrates with a pie party. And students who give are entered into a lottery, and the winner gets to toss a creamy pie into a teacher's face. At Wheaton North, the pie-in-the-face caps an all-school assembly.
Michael Neuhaus, a science teacher at Wheaton North who braved the pies without a tarp or protective goggles, praised Cole's approach.
"Even the students that didn't know me really got a kick out of it," Neuhaus said.
Food Pantry Fridays also started accepting monetary donations after the Manschots learned that every $1 buys 8 pounds of food for the pantry. Cole pulls together one to two dozen students to collect money in a jar during lunch.
"Oh, it haunts me during school," Cole said when asked how often he's coordinating and organizing the program. "I find myself in class not thinking about homework and thinking about the food drive."
Devyn, now a sophomore at Indiana University, said Food Pantry Fridays would not have survived without her brother pushing students to donate. She's still surprised by the collection of food, looking back at an 11-year-old Cole combing their neighborhood.
"If you don't believe in it, you don't get the results," she said, "and Cole truly believes in this."
For Kevin Williams, Wheaton North's activities director and an English teacher, Food Pantry Fridays is a product of the Manschots' devotion to their community. On Friday afternoons, Williams says, when students have emptied the halls for the weekend, Cole and his friends are still packing donations.
"It's innate in them," Williams said. "They believe that helping others is just a part of life."