Trinity Baptist nonprofit reaches out to help neighboring school

Emma Keith / The Transcript

The "Buggy Bug Snack Cart," a creation of students at Wilson Elementary, allows students to bring snacks and drinks to teachers while working on social skills. The cart is funded for the rest of the year by money from the Wilson Foundation, a new nonprofit that serves the school.

It's almost impossible to miss Wilson Elementary from the front door of Trinity Baptist Church.

The two institutions are located across Peters Avenue from one another, facing entrance to entrance. The proximity has helped create and sustain a years-long relationship that deepened this year with the creation of the Wilson Foundation, a nonprofit spearheaded by Trinity congregants and designed to specifically serve the needs of the Wilson community.

The Wilson Foundation, the brainchild of Trinity member Larry Toothaker, started serving Wilson this semester through gifts and grants. The seven-member foundation board takes teacher pitches and requests and has already executed an idea of its own, as well.

Toothaker didn't have any connection of his own to Wilson; he was a church and community member who noticed the school's proximity and need.

After he heard a radio story on student food access, Toothaker became dedicated to ensuring Wilson students weren't dealing with hunger on top of their normal school concerns.

As of 2018, about 64% of Wilson students were eligible for free or reduced lunches, according to numbers from the U.S. Department of Education.

"I read a book at some point saying that one of the things that churches could do is to start nonprofits to help ... so that triggered, 'OK, then start a nonprofit,'" Toothaker said. "And so, then it was well over a year ago that I started."

The process of creating a foundation wasn't simple for Toothaker. He taught statistics at the University of Oklahoma for decades before retiring about 10 years ago, but he'd never ventured into the world of nonprofits. He sought help for filling out IRS forms and creating bylaws, but he did much of the research by himself.

While the foundation is Toothaker's passion, it's built off a pre-existing relationship between the church and the elementary school. Shannon Schroeder, now a board member with the Wilson Foundation, is a Trinity church member who started working with Wilson years ago to fill needs with various service projects.

"You can't help but notice the proximity of the school; our front door is looking straight into their front doors," Schroeder said. "I just thought as a church, to model Christ's example of being a servant, we should be in that school. We should be trying to serve the needs of children, families, staff in whatever capacity we are able to. I think most elementary schools are just very happy to see an organization come in and say, 'How can we help?'"

Schroeder originally coordinated projects at the school as needed, including a coat drive, school supplies donations or teacher meals for parent-teacher conference evenings, but the outreach was always more informal and spontaneous.

Now that the Wilson Foundation has a dedicated mission and resources for the school, the project process will be a more streamlined process, Wilson Principal Chris Crelia said.

"We just wanted to make sure that we were using the community's resources wisely," Crelia said. "The idea of a foundation that could kind of oversee that and could do line items and make sure that contributions could go where they were most needed was really appealing."

So far, the Wilson Foundation has funded three projects at the school: a round of gift cards for teachers at the start of the school year, an ongoing snack supply and a snack cart. Student hunger isn't the organization's sole focus, but Toothaker said he's already gotten emails from teachers explaining that their students come to school hungry, and parents are often unable to send their children to school with snacks for the day.

The foundation is working to fill gaps where teachers or the school can't provide, Toothaker said.

"What I see is the Wilson Foundation just being one more way that the community can be connected with the school," Crelia said. "That's what we want to see, whether you have money or items or time, or even if you just want to come observe."

The Wilson Foundation is one piece of a network of support for Norman schools. Kathryn Morris-Scott, a teacher at Wilson, said she's noticed acts as simple as a neighbor leaving Box Tops on her porch for donations, a community member raking leaves around Wilson or people stocking the small food pantry box outside the school.

"You wish you could just kind of gather all those people and say thank you, but I think those people don't want to be recognized, either. They just want to do something because it feels good," Morris-Scott said.

Morris-Scott was one of the Wilson Foundation's first grant recipients this fall. She noticed issues with division between some of her students and wanted to give them a way to engage with others in the school, learn social skills and bond among themselves.

Morris-Scott's students now run the Buggy Bug Snack Cart, a small cart stocked with juice, fruit and snack mixes that they use to bring snacks to teachers.

The cart is now funded through the end of the year with a grant from the Wilson Foundation, which included donations from a Norman Homeland location, and the two students who were struggling at the start of the year are now best friends, Morris-Scott said.

"My students loved it, and they thought it was really fun, and I noticed that they were talking to teachers they'd never talked to before, and they were saying, 'Would you like a snack?' and teachers were responding," Morris-Scott said. "It brought a smile to the teachers' faces, too."

Toothaker created the foundation to be purely nonprofit. All board members are volunteers, so all donations go straight to the school, in whatever form they're needed. The foundation has been pulling together funding from a few Norman donors so far, but Toothaker said he doesn't want to leave money sitting in its account.

"I want this funded locally; I don't want it funded by all these corporate programs for schools," Toothaker said.

Toothaker said the foundation won't be funding projects at other schools. While he's ready and willing to teach others how to start a nonprofit at their local school, he said the Wilson Foundation's mission will always be focused on Wilson Elementary.

Schroeder said she's hopeful that as the foundation continues to grow and more community members understand its potential, the project proposals and funding will keep rolling in.

"We didn't really have that many requests this first year, but we fill each request that comes in, and we're just hoping that that just gives teachers the understanding that, 'Yes, this foundation exists, it's here, and let's use it," Schroeder said.

The Wilson Foundation is located at 801 N. Peters Ave. in Norman.

Emma Keith366-3537Follow me @emma_ckeithekeith@normantranscript.com

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