Teen siblings raise nearly $110,000 to fight hunger in Washington State

Aidan Ryan started volunteering abroad, but when he realized the challenges much closer to home, he adjusted his focus. His sister, Erin Ryan, has gotten involved, too.

Amanda Cowan/The Columbian/AP
Clark County Food Bank communications manager Matt Edmonds (l.) looks over an oversize check as it is presented by Erin Ryan, 13 (2nd from l.), and her brother, Aidan Ryan, 17, at the Clark County Food Bank in Vancouver, Wash. Also present is executive director Alan Hamilton (r.).

Aidan Ryan plans to study finance at the University of San Diego, making his efforts to raise funds for local food banks a kind of entry-level lesson in finance.

Over the last two years, the 17-year-old has managed Feeding Clark County, a campaign that collected $109,960 and 8,500 pounds of food split between the Clark County Food Bank and St. Vincent de Paul in Vancouver, Wash. Trying to maximize impact rather than profit and soliciting donations in the right way were a couple of the lessons Aidan learned. He rallied his peers at Seton Catholic College Preparatory School, along with King's Way Christian School. His sister, Erin Ryan, got her peers at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School involved, too.

"A food-and-funds drive of this size, especially a food-and-funds drive done by students, is just unheard of," said Matt Edmonds, program manager at the Clark County Food Bank.

Not only does it help families, but the work also inspires other students to get involved, Edmonds said.

Alan Hamilton, the food bank's executive director, told the pair of siblings: "This is kind of strange and odd and weird because this never happens where someone like yourself does so much good for helping people who are hungry in our community." What they did, Hamilton said, helps "real people with names and addresses and kids and lives."

Aidan first got involved in service work through Courts for Kids, a nonprofit that builds basketball courts in impoverished countries to provide children with a safe place to play. He did multiple service trips abroad to build courts. As he got older and began volunteering with the Clark County Food Bank and local homeless shelters, he realized that there was plenty of poverty right in Clark County.

"For me, that was kind of a big deal to realize poverty is something that's in our local community," Aidan said. "You really can't help it in other places across the world until you can fix it in your own community. That was something that really inspired the whole project."

The U.S. Census estimates that 11.2 percent of the population in Clark County lives below the poverty level. In the city of Vancouver, it's 14.8 percent.

The teens' mother, Annemarie Ryan, makes cakes to celebrate the birthdays of children staying in homeless shelters. When Erin was delivering one of the cakes to a shelter, she saw a girl from her class.

"It was kind of big to realize she stayed there," said Erin, 13.

"You really don't understand something until you either witness it or you can hear about it in a specific situation," Aidan said. "Being in poverty, it's something they can't help. Being a kid, you shouldn't have to worry about being hungry. You should be worrying about going to school and making friends and stuff."

The siblings held food drives at their schools and collected food through door-to-door collections. They also sought donations from Catholic churches and local businesses. It was through those interactions that Aidan learned another valuable finance lesson: rejection. But he found success with a fast-food chain: The owner of Carl's Jr. in Clark County donated all the sales from the four restaurants from a single day in March, which brought in about $26,000 for the food bank and St. Vincent de Paul.

Donations at the Clark County Food Bank's major drives have trended downward, so large efforts like the Ryans' help supplement those gaps. The Ryans do a yearly fundraiser on Valentine's Day where people have dinner at their home in Felida, Wash., and they raised money by selling poinsettias.

Originally, Feeding Clark County was called 40 Days of Giving and coincided with Lent, but the effort competed with other charitable events happening during the same time. So the siblings are figuring out what's the optimal time to hold a food-and-funds drive and how long the campaign should last. As a finance-oriented family, they're interested in the numbers and output of what they're doing, and using their findings to persuade other people to get involved.

With Aidan heading off to college, he's handing the reins to his sister. For next year, she'd like to expand the effort and help out the neonatal intensive care unit at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver.

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