Helping children through the COVID-19 crisis one meal at a time

By Laura Koss-Feder | June 01, 2020

Sarah O'Donnell

Sarah O'Donnell ’05 could not have imagined that her bachelor's degree in recreation administration from Aurora University would lead to her becoming a hero in her community. But it did.

When the coronavirus pandemic forced Illinois schools to shut down in mid-March by order of Gov. J. B. Pritzker, O'Donnell faced the Herculean task of keeping thousands of students from going hungry. As CEO of the Tri-Town YMCA in Lombard, O’Donnell quickly stepped up to help feed K-12 children in and around the communities of Lombard, Villa Park, and Oakbrook Terrace who relied on free and subsidized school lunches.

O’Donnell immediately started contacting everyone she knew.

The schools closed on Friday. By Monday morning, she had an army of more than 300 volunteers ready to ride on a fleet of school buses and man curbside distribution sites to deliver 32,000 meals to 3,200 children each week.

O'Donnell established four distribution sites for the delivery of the grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches. And she convinced a moving truck rental agency to rent her a refrigerated truck, at a discount, to store the meals. (She and a community partner have since landed a grant to cover the cost of the refrigerated rental truck.)

Never one to sit still, O’Donnell assisted the volunteers on the buses, helped deliver the meals herself, and even dug out her sewing machine to make masks for staff, volunteers, and children in the community.

"One of the best things I ever learned at AU was that in the world of recreation you need to pivot, and no two days are ever similar," said O'Donnell. "I also learned to network, network, network, since you never know who can suddenly become a part of your working world."

Since that March day, the Tri-Town YMCA has expanded its effort to respond to other pressing needs. O’Donnell led the charge to create emergency child care sites for children of essential workers and to deliver school supply kits for students who did not have the means for purchasing school supplies for home learning.

I was always taught at AU to think outside of the box — to be a problem solver and to find people’s strengths when you are leading others. I always took that to heart and use that advice today. Sarah O'Donnell ’05

She has also actively participated with other YMCA leaders and youth health specialists across the country to develop a field guide to provide real-time advice about emergency child care. The field guide publication, released in mid-May, includes guidelines for recreation professionals to meet the child care needs of families headed back to work as stay-at-home orders conclude across the nation.

Under her leadership, Tri-Town YMCA has been working in partnership with the Northern Illinois Food Bank to establish a curbside meal pick up program for kids Monday through Friday in neighborhoods where the need is greatest. The sites deliver 2,800 meals a day, and this number is anticipated to increase as the model will be expanding to 10 sites.

“The only question you have to answer when you arrive for food is, ‘How many children under the age of 18 are in your home?’” O’Donnell said.

The Tri-Town team has also been responsible for providing wellness calls to seniors facing social isolation around the community. This has been a great way for people to volunteer who want to help from a distance.

Meanwhile, O'Donnell, 40, has a full house of her own to help manage. Daughter, Olivia, 7, has been learning remotely, and husband, Brian, 40, who works in global information technology, is also at home.

In the middle of this crisis, O'Donnell was able to reflect upon her days at AU and how it helped her prepare for this challenge.

She transferred to AU for the recreation administration program from Northern Illinois University, when her mother and one of her brothers were moving to Ireland. AU soon became “an extension of my family, my base,” she said.

She recalls the good times working with youth at the recreation camps at George Williams College in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. While finishing her studies, she participated in an internship at the Village of Algonquin, where she began her career upon graduation from AU. For the past 15 years, she has held various recreation jobs at nonprofit organizations and in municipal government, including Wheaton Park District, The Morton Arboretum, and People’s Resource Center.

“I was always taught at AU to think outside of the box — to be a problem solver and to find people’s strengths when you are leading others,” said O’Donnell. “I always took that to heart and use that advice today.”

During this time of uncertainty, O’Donnell said she appreciates the legacy of George Williams, founder of the YMCA, and namesake of George Williams College of Aurora University. She hopes to encourage children and teens that pursuing a recreation administration degree can lead to an exciting job filled with variety and service.

“We put so much pressure on our children, but we just need to let them find out who they are and what their passions are,” said O’Donnell. “That’s what AU taught me. And that’s what I want to pass on to children of the future.”

Visit the Tri-Town YMCA to find out more about its COVID-19 pandemic emergency response efforts, including free meals for children, free emergency child care services for essential workers, and how to volunteer.

Read more about AU's Bachelor of Science in Parks and Recreation Leadership degree.