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She loves rallying Q-C students to battle hunger
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Photo: Gary Krambeck/gkrambeck@qconline.com
Denise Hester, Student Hunger Driver director
Denise Hester always has had an interest in helping others in a big way, and that desire makes her job as director of the Student Hunger Drive a perfect fit.

"Right out of college, I worked for the state of Iowa for the Governor's Alliance on Substance Abuse as a program planner and legislative liaison for that program in Des Moines, and I did that for several years," she said. "When we moved to the Quad-Cities, I was pregnant with my first daughter, and we made the decision that I'd stay home and raise the kids."

She says she enjoyed her time at home in Bettendorf with husband, Greg, raising Taylor, Sydney and Jack, but when the kids got older, it was time to think about going back to work.

"When my youngest went to school, this opportunity came before me, and it was a great fit. This is my fifth year with the Student Hunger Drive," she said.

The Student Hunger Drive has enjoyed a long, successful history in the Quad-Cities. Area high-school students participate in events ranging from canned-food drives to doughnut-eating contests to raise money and gather supplies for the River Bend Foodbank.

"We have our traditional student drive that takes place over six weeks in the fall, from September to November," said Ms. Hester. "Organizing and running it takes lots of time and energy! It's a lot of work securing sponsors, working with the media, and fundraising."

The state of the economy in the past few years has led to even more work for Ms. Hester and the Student Hunger Drive.

"Since I came onboard in the spring of 2010, the need for food assistance has doubled. In 2010, the River Bend Foodbank distributed 4 million pounds of food; last year, it distributed more than 8 million pounds of food," Ms. Hester said.

"Each week, 10,000 individuals in Rock Island and Scott counties receive assistance from River Bend Foodbank. The number of families dealing with food insecurity when school isn't in session has increased in the last couple of years. That's why, each week, 1,600 elementary students in Rock Island and Scott Counties are sent home with a backpack full of food."

After she successfully worked with kids to combat hunger in the Quad-Cities, it was time for Ms. Hester to take on a new challenge and engage a new group of people.

"For the past four or five years, we've been engaging local businesses to donate food through the Student Hunger Drive to the River Bend Foodbank," she says. "Starting in 2014, we've moved the corporate challenge from fall to February.

"The dates for the official collection are Feb. 3- 27. On Feb. 28, we'll have our loading day, when all participants bring all the food and cash they collected during the month to River Bend Foodbank."

The Student Hunger Drive has a hands-off approach on how groups raise money and collect food. "We let the schools and groups decide and encourage them to be as creative as possible," Ms. Hester explains. That way, schools and groups can tailor events to suit their unique situations.

As anyone who has ever worked with a nonprofit organization knows, even with one event underway, there's always another event being planned.

Fortunately for the Student Hunger Drive, Ms. Hester brought valuable community-service skills to the job. "When I was with the Governor's Alliance, I was the legislative section. The rest of my time, I worked with a project called Project SAFE (Substance Abuse Free Environment). There was a community-service component, and that's where I learned about community service," she says.

"That's what the Student Hunger Drive is about," Ms. Hester says. "There's a spirit of volunteering and doing community-service projects. Kids who are involved in them are more likely to give back as adults. That's the mission of the Student Hunger Drive; that's what it's all about. We are our own nonprofit organization -- our mission is to teach kids lessons in community service."

The job may get tough emotionally sometimes, but the benefits are enormous for Ms. Hester.

"I think the most rewarding part of my job is to work with the kids to educate the public about hunger. Many people aren't aware of the need in the Quad-Cities. Our business partners are supplying so many meals to the hungry in the Quad-Cities, and it really means a lot to me."

There's one more benefit to the job that's meant a lot to her during this rather nasty winter. "I get to work from home, a plus for my job!"





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