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Philando Castile charity pays off lunch debt for hundreds of students

Before Philando Castile became a household name in July 2016, when his deadly encounter with a Minnesota police officer was streamed live on Facebook, students at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School knew him simply as Mr. Phil. He was the school nutrition worker who often swooped in to pay for their lunches when they could not afford them.

Now, a year and a half after his death, a fundraiser created in Castile’s memory is continuing his legacy. Last week, the creator of the charity, Philando Feeds the Children, delivered a $35,000 check to St. Paul Public Schools — enough to finish paying off the debt owed by every student enrolled in the National School Lunch Program at the district’s 56 schools, including Castile’s former campus.

“We are merely trying to continue Mr. Phil’s kind spirit,” said Pamela Fergus, a psychology instructor at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul who started the fundraiser. “He loved those kids.”

Fergus created the charity last fall as a class project with her students in Psychology 212. It had a more modest goal then: to raise several thousand dollars to cover students’ cafeteria debts at J.J. Hill. But the donations came rushing in, easily surpassing their expectations and raising tens of thousands of dollars in a few months.

In October, Fergus delivered the first check, a $10,000 payment to St. Paul Public Schools, the district said. Combined with the $35,000 donation last week, Philando Feeds the Children has covered the debts of at least 1,788 students, the district said Sunday night.

“This fundraiser demonstrates the kind and generous spirit our community members hold in their heart for the students of SPPS,” Toya Stewart Downey, a school district spokeswoman, said in an email.

Castile knew firsthand the hardships many students face. In 2002, at 19, he joined the nutrition services department of St. Paul Public Schools. He became a supervisor in 2014 and had been working at J.J. Hill for several years at the time of his death. On Sunday, his mother, Valerie Castile, shared a news article about the charity’s work on her Facebook page.

“GOD Gave US Your Spirit Of Love And Kindness,” wrote Valerie Castile, who did not return a call seeking comment Sunday. “Your Legacy Will Live Forever!!”

In the school district, about 70 percent of the roughly 37,000 students are enrolled in free or reduced-price lunch, a federal program that pays for a student’s entire meal or a large part of it. Students whose families are part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, automatically receive free lunches at school. Others are eligible based on income: A student in a family of three would qualify for free lunch if the household made less than $26,546 a year.

Every St. Paul student who goes through the cafeteria line receives a meal, and those who are charged a full or reduced price have the amount withdrawn from a personal account. If that account is insufficiently funded, a debt accrues. But the school district, not the families, is ultimately responsible for the bill. If an account balance is never paid, the district relies on donations or digs elsewhere into its budget to cover the cost.

Although the donations from Philando Feeds the Children have covered the debts of students enrolled in the federal program, the district still has $100,000 in lunch debt, said Stacy Koppen, its director of nutrition services. Additional students could qualify, but have not turned in their applications, and others just miss the financial cutoff for eligibility.

“Our goal is to enroll them in the lunch program if we can,” Koppen said in an email Sunday. “Donations are used to cover unpaid meal charges, but that amount of money is finite.”

Six months after the fundraiser started, people have donated more than $148,000, according to its website. The organizer’s ambitions have grown, too: Fergus wrote on the site that she now hoped to collect $999,999, raising enough to pay lunch debts in schools across Minnesota.

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