Feb. 6, 2014 at 10:24 AM ET
As a tutor and mentor at Valley Oaks Elementary School in Houston for over 10 years, Kenny Thompson has taken pride in helping out kids. So on Monday, when he found out that over 60 students at his school were eating cold sandwiches for lunch because of overdue funds on their accounts, he decided to pay off the negative balance. All $465 of it.
“It was the best money I ever spent,” Thompson, 52, told TODAY.com. “It was the best gift I ever gave myself. I went into my car and screamed.”
He didn’t realize how widespread the lunch account problem was until he learned that a Utah school had thrown away the lunches of students with negative balances at the end of January. That’s when he decided to look into the issue in his own community.
He found out that some students whose parents hadn’t paid were eating cold cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, instead of hot, hearty fare. And others avoided the lunch line altogether, preferring not to eat rather than face the embarrassment of not being able to afford the same lunch in front of their peers. Many of these students were already on reduced lunch, which costs just 40 cents a day.
“It was horrifying, it broke my heart,” he said. “These are elementary kids. They’re not bankers, and not responsible for the financial issues in the household.”
His wife, a teacher at Valley Oaks, encouraged him to follow through on the idea, but warned him that he wouldn’t be able to buy the new pair of Doc Martens he’d wanted. That was quite all right with Thompson.
“My work boots are still good,” he said with a chuckle.
Houston residents heard about Thompson's generosity when his story aired on a local news station, NBC affiliate KPRC, on Wednesday.
Thompson believes school lunch is one of the most basic and, therefore, important elements of education. It’s the one meal the school system can guarantee, and studies show inadequate nutrition can affect classroom performance.
“We don’t know what they have for breakfast,” he said. “That’s the only meal we can control.”
Students and school administrators at Valley Oaks have openly expressed gratitude for Thompson’s efforts, he said. One of his mentees broke down and cried when he heard the news, sharing how he used to avoid the lunch line and claim he wasn’t hungry to avoid any questions.
Other adults have been inspired by Thompson’s kindness too. He’s already heard of one woman who went into the school district office, expressing her desire to pay off accounts just like "the man on TV." He hopes that others will do the same.
“They say everything’s bigger in Texas,” Thompson said. “That means our hearts too.”
This isn’t the end of Thompson’s giving: He’s already “targeted” another school with students he’d like to help out.
“It’s going to happen real soon,” he said.