Keneni Godana, an eighth-grader at Hellen Keller Junior High School in Hoffman Estates always lacked the courage to speak in public.
But on Friday, she was among a core group of students presenting a PowerPoint presentation to school administrators, business leaders and members of the Schaumburg/Hoffman Estates Rotary Club.
"I like being part of something bigger than myself -- that helps the community," she said.
Their topic? Describing preparations that went into creating a new food pantry at Keller, making it the second one in Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54.
Two years ago, District 54 officials opened a food pantry at Mead Junior High School in Elk Grove Village. The idea was fairly groundbreaking and quickly caught on. What started as an effort to help school families in crisis, drew 400 visits last year.
Pete Hannigan, former Mead Junior High principal and current assistant superintendent of District 54, said the Mead pantry was designed to give parents referred by school social workers easier access to services.
"The on-site food pantry took away the obstacles parents face when searching for the pantries," Hannigan said.
Melinda Perez, a school social worker at Keller, says the needs of local families have increased dramatically with the downturn in the economy.
"Most of these families are double-income families and when one of them loses their job, they're suddenly in a crisis," Perez says. "Mostly, they're young families with small children, who haven't been to a food pantry before."
School officials added a dedicated room for the pantry at Keller over the summer, complete with its own outside entrance. They reasoned this second pantry will serve families who live north of Schaumburg Road.
Students like Keneni, and her classmates, Allison Pariso, Megan Krug and Amy Rodriguez, all of Schaumburg, took it from there.
In September, they organized a walkathon behind the school, which drew more than 500 students and raised more than $1,600 to help stock the pantry's shelves.
Since then, each of Keller's feeder schools have held food drives and six of them are delivering their goods this week to the new pantry.
Members of the Schaumburg/Hoffman Estates Rotary Club have partnered with the students since the beginning. They helped obtain a startup grant for the Mead pantry and now have raised funds for the one at Keller.
Local businesses already are organizing food drives, including Whole Foods in Schaumburg, which donates bread and fresh produce, as well as CarMax, Verizon, the Schaumburg Business Association and the Disney Store at Woodfield Mall.
"To get people out the door with boxes of food takes a community effort," says Eileen Higginbotham, an officer with the Rotary Club.
Their partnership with students took a step forward on Friday, when they installed Keneni, Allison, Megan and Amy as executive board members of the school's new Interact Club, which is a sanctioned junior version of Rotary.
Like their adult counterparts, the teens pledged to carry out service projects that benefit their school, community and even ones with an international component.
"It's pretty rewarding," said Keller Principal Heather Wilson, "when you see kids this interested in helping the community."