Compassion that lives on: Cole’s Pantry carries on the spirit of feeding the hungry
A stone tossed into the water will quickly drop out of sight. But the ripples it makes create impact, sometimes beyond the grasp of our understanding.
Cole Pelican’s passion was being a cowboy, and he was a good one. He loved being outdoors, hunting, fishing, sports, and most of all, his family and friends. At just eight years old, Cole had lived more life than most people dream of when a he died in a tragic horse accident on his family’s ranch near Belfry, Mont. in 2009. “Though young, Cole took full advantage of what this life had to offer,” his family wrote. “Cole’s passion for living brought joy to all who knew him and he is an example to all of us to enjoy every day that we have been given.”
Cole cared for people, in particular, his friends. And he knew that when the Friday bell rang, some of them would go hungry until the next school meal. He would bring buddies home so his mother could feed them. Sometimes she would find food missing from the pantry, taken to be secretly shared with others.
In 2010, a year after Cole had passed away, his older sister Fallon Pelican joined Family, Career and Community Leaders of America, or FCCLA, at Bridger High School. She was challenged to start a community service project. Working with her advisor, Vicki Kaufman, they deemed the right fit was providing weekend backpacks of food to needy students in memory of Cole – his big appetite and his heart for the hungry. Using a $500 donation from Cole’s Western Wishes memorial, established to assist rural families in times of need, Pelican and Kaufman created Cole’s Pantry. They began by anonymously serving 11 kids from eight families.
The organization was based upon the principle of students supporting students. “It’s powerful and heartwarming how much students want to be involved,” says Kaufman. As the program launched, a group of volunteers dubbed themselves “Cole’s Posse” – anyone who donated over $25 or $25 worth of food got to be in the club, complete with membership badges proudly distributed and worn.
The idea of Cole’s Pantry spread, and over the next eight years programs launched in Fromberg, Laurel, Glasgow, Shepherd, Red Lodge, Deer Lodge and Huntley. In 2017 the program was recognized by Montana Governor Bullock with a ServeMontana award for community service.
Today Cole’s Pantry has grown tremendously as cartons, boxes, cans and most of all, love, have poured in. Their mission continues to be to provide weekend and summer food backpacks for hungry children in the rural communities of Montana. In 2018, with what would have been Cole’s twelfth year of school approaching, his family and the organization set the goal of supporting 12 programs. They quickly surpassed that in one year, and are currently at 14, feeding almost 1,000 kids in rural Montana every week.
The program is run 100 percent by volunteers and overseen by a board of directors, and accepts applications for funds to start new programs on a quarterly basis. Program growth has been built mostly on word of mouth, and directors say the people who get involved are those who see a deep need in their own rural communities. No tax or government money is received; all provisions are funded by donations.
Each program affiliated with Cole’s Pantry runs a little differently. Some volunteers fill actual backpacks, canvas bags, or even t-shirt bags hand-sewn by students. Others offer an open pantry students can discreetly visit and choose what they need. Schools send out a letter at the beginning of the year and any family or student who requests assistance can be put on the list. There are no qualifications, stipulations or guidelines – anyone who asks for food can get it.
Two things in common, however, are that the recipients are always kept private, and the volunteers always include students. Many programs are run by FCCLA or FFA programs, but some are by 4-H groups outside of school. All are based on the foundation of peers helping peers, just as Cole did.
Kaufman says when you talk to the student volunteers, you receive smiles of pride. “They have no idea who gets these bags,” she says. “They are just doing it because they know it needs to be done.”
Today Kaufman continues her involvement as outreach coordinator of Cole’s Pantry, Inc., assisting schools or organizations with setting up a program, and following up as they learn and grow. The nonprofit provides grants for initial start-up funds, then works with each community to become self-sustaining. Board members volunteer to visit the startup location to help with fundraisers and training. Additionally, all the Cole’s Pantry school advisers are in a network and are in continually in contact with one another – asking for advice and receiving ideas from other programs.
Marteann Bertrand is a friend of the Pelican family, and serves as the chairman of the board of Cole’s Pantry, Inc. “If a program is struggling, they can ask for input or assistance,” says Bertrand. “We don’t just set them up and say, ‘Here you go, you’re on your own.’ We’re truly a family of programs.”
Plans for the future include continued expansion throughout Montana and possibly into Wyoming, while keeping the mission and purpose the same – kids helping feed other kids.
“It’s sad to think there are that many hungry kids out there in rural areas,” says Bertrand, noting that 40 to 60 percent of students in rural Montana receive free or reduced cost school lunches. “Many of those kids don’t have anything to eat from lunchtime on Friday until lunchtime on Monday. That’s why Cole’s Pantry exists.”
The organization may have originated from a deep loss, but a shared passion for honoring a kind and fervent boy by feeding those in need is what draws the board of directors and supporters of Cole’s Pantry together.
“We have a little motto among us,” says Bertrand. “We say, ‘We’re going to feed them all.’”
This May, Cole would have graduated with his classmates at Belfry High School. They plan to honor him with his own cap and gown, his seat upheld, as they march out to make their mark on the world.
Though his chair will sit empty, Cole has already made his impact – deeply, widely, and above all, compassionately.