HARRIS COUNTY, Ga. (WRBL)— Harris County students spent the last week collecting canned food and non-perishable items to donate to a local food pantry.

“We use empathy to do this food drive,” 4th grader Hugh Oakes said. Oakes is one of more than 500 students at New Mountain Hill Elementary School (NMHE) who set a school record collecting nearly 3,000 food items to donate to FOCUS Ministries, a nonprofit in Harris County.

“We collected 2,725 items this year, which is actually our school record so far. That brings our total within at least the past three years since we started logging to over 7,000 donations,” NMHE school counselor, Denise Belt, told WRBL.

All items were raised in one week. Students from across the Harris County School District held their own food drives.

“Our hope is that our students understand the meaning of what they’re doing and how they’re helping our community in Harris County by providing all of these donations. We have a word every month our students learn about empathy for the month of October and putting themselves in other people’s shoes and understanding their points of view, their feelings, but also their hardships and struggles that they might face,” Belt shared.

Every Tuesday and Wednesday from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m., FOCUS opens their food pantry for the community to come in and shop, an operation that has grown exponentially.

“Believe it or not, before COVID, FOCUS was serving nine to six families a week. Now we serve almost 100. So post-COVID for people that are struggling is even harder now,” Executive Director of FOCUS, Kathy Carlisle, told WRBL. “And we’re just seeing a lot more people, especially elderly people that are struggling in our county.”

Primary caregiver for one of those families is Angela Dallas who walks miles to get her weekly groceries.

“I have seven grandbabies that I take care of, total ten in all, but I have seven that live with me,” Dallas said. “I’ve been coming here and it’s a great place to come because without them I wouldn’t be able to feed my family.”

Carlisle says the items donated by the Harris County School District will be distributed in their Thanksgiving packages starting next week. She says each year Harris County students help FOCUS, and residents within the county get through the winter.

“So, it just really is this huge shot in the arm of canned goods and things that we will use probably even past Thanksgiving because it’s so much,” Carlisle said. “A lot of people don’t realize that we do have poverty in Harris County in that we have, I call it hidden poverty. And there are a lot of people suffering. At our food pantry, over 60% are widows and seniors, elderly people over age 60. And we just don’t think about poverty in Harris County, but we do. We have a lot of poverty.”

Folks can put together Thanksgiving meals to take home during FOCUS’ regular food pantry hours on Nov. 7, 8, 14, and 15. The pantry is housed in the Hamilton United Methodist Church. Anyone interested in supporting FOCUS Ministries can drop off donations, make financial contributions, or shop in their thrift store. More information can be found, here.