By Coty Dolores Miranda, GSN Contributor

Caring for their community – even folks they’ve never met – is the fall focus of students of Gilbert’s Williams Field High School.

Of course, a little classroom competition never hurts.

This month marks the eighth annual Williams Field Stuff the Bus Food Drive that last year totaled 13,000 pounds of nonperishable food items donated to the United Food Bank in Mesa.

This year, the students collected more than 12,100 pounds of food items, piled them into extra-large boxes and placed them aboard a full-size Higley Unified School District bus that rumbled off to the United Food Bank’s main facility in west Mesa last Monday – followed by two other buses filled with students of this year’s Stuff the Bus first-hour class competition.

For the first time this year, four officers of the National Honor Society – which sponsors the school-wide event – also came along

The honor society officers said the drive was important to the school – as well as themselves.

Though all four officers spoke movingly about their compassion for those families and individuals who find themselves in dire circumstances anytime, but especially during the holidays, it was NHS secretary Ruth Nyagaka’s story that proved poignant even to her fellow officers.

“I feel I’m paying it forward by participating in Stuff the Bus because I know how it was for my family,” she said. “I feel honored I was able to receive food from United Food Bank.”

The second year NHS member recounted how in 2013 her family was hit with the unforeseen – her mother’s hospitalization and a house fire.

“My mother was sick and then hospitalized with Valley Fever, and this happened around December, 2013.

While she was in the hospital, our house almost burned down, so it was difficult to have both adversities at the same time and find food for the holidays,” she recalled.

“So, I know personally what it’s like to have United Food Bank help families. And I know there’s an extraordinary amount of people who struggle every day to find food, and people in my own school who may go home hungry. I feel I’m helping by providing food to share with them.”

Honor society president Andrei Regorgo added, “The opportunity for us to help those less fortunate and disenfranchised in our community really motivates me. I know in our school we have kids who qualify for free or reduced lunches, so we try to appreciate that we’re helping them and others like them.”

The senior said he became aware of Stuff the Bus when he was a National Junior Honor Society member at Cooley Middle School.

“My older brother and sister were both in National Honor Society and I tried my best to contribute,” Regorgo recalled, adding that he has been active in the drive since a freshman.

Gabrielle Ciadella, this year’s society vice-president, believes everyone in the school benefits from the drive, which also included activities like Halloween’s Trick-or-Treat for Cans and the highly-successful Bashas Food Drive held Nov. 3.

“It’s a great community service project, and a way for Williams Field to reach out to the community,” said Ciadella, a senior.

Though she has been a part of the Stuff the Food Bus for four years, this year she decided to do some further research.

“I read the United Food Bank website and I’m more aware of the situation and the needs of hungry children and families,” she said. “We know United Food Bank relies on our contributions.”

Ciadella said she encourages everyone to review the website – UnitedFoodBank.org – to learn more about the local need.

She noted that Arizona ranks 12th in the nation for food insecurity, sixth in the country for children who are food insecure and that one out of every five state residents goes to bed hungry.

“You know it’s out there, but you don’t think it’s that extreme,” she said.

Senior Ashley Hostetler, society treasurer, said her research on hunger among Arizona children compelled her to work even harder this year to gather foods, even organizing the school’s 78 NHS members to join her in  door-to-door weekly solicitations for canned foods and non-perishables.

“I think every year when Stuff the Bus comes around, we’re faced with statistics that show how many children are starving,” she said. “Well, we’re not content with those statistics, and we’re trying to change that.”

The Williams Field High School Stuff the Bus Food Drive began eight  years ago with a lunch chat between Career Center Specialist Mary Buscema and Josh Crosby, Higley Unified School District director of transportation.

“Stuff the Bus was born when we came up with the idea eight years ago,” recalled Buscema, adding:

“I was concerned with low community service projects available to students, and Josh and I started brainstorming. It’s turned out to be a great annual event with all Williams Field students getting involved.”

Crosby said the continually growing success of the Williams Field High School endeavor required an increase in the size of the delivery bus from a smaller vehicle used in the beginning.

“The bus we’re using this year is a full-size, 36-foot-long, 72-passenger Blue Bird Bus. The bus has a gross vehicle weight rating of 30,000 pounds, and Pioneer Sand and Gravel allows us to weigh the bus on their truck scale to ensure the bus is safe to drive prior to heading to the food bank,” said Crosby.

Crosby has been Higley’s transportation director since 2002, two years after he started at the district.

The annual fall event has been extremely popular with all students since that time. The school hosts an annual donation drive competition and this year, two first period classrooms tied for top honors.

The 72 first-hour class members taught by Heidi Zellner and Rebecca Rodriquez were honored with the opportunity to ride another bus to United Food Bank, where they helped unload the donations.

And it was a sizeable amount this year, well surpassing the 20,000-pound goal. Monetary donations helped raise the total as, according to Buscema, each dollar collected counted as five pounds.

In addition, an unnamed private contributor who preferred to stay anonymous offered to match funds up to $4,000.

In all the drive collected $4,000 in cash that, with the food items, was enough to serve more than 31,000 meals to needy families.

Buscema said she was once again very proud of Williams Field students, and hopeful their caring and largesse will be replicated by the community.

“We hope that maybe Williams Field students’ efforts will inspire other people to think about donating to the United Food Bank this year,” she said.

United Food Bank is a nonprofit organization providing hunger relief in the East Valley and eastern Arizona, a 19,500-square-mile service area.

It collects, stores and distributes food and other donations to more than 220 partner agencies.

Last year, United Food Bank distributed nearly 24 million pounds of food.