Gene White: For I was hungry and you gave me food

Gene White is surrounded by children at the Intermediate School in Langley. White’s work to feed children all over the world has made her this month’s Hometown Hero. White is joined by students (from left) Maddy Jerome, Autumn Sparks, Maddie Hamilton and Cassie Thomson. - Brian Kelly
Gene White is surrounded by children at the Intermediate School in Langley. White’s work to feed children all over the world has made her this month’s Hometown Hero. White is joined by students (from left) Maddy Jerome, Autumn Sparks, Maddie Hamilton and Cassie Thomson.
— image credit: Brian Kelly

To the hungry, a slice of bread is the face of God says Gene White, this month’s Hometown Hero, citing Gandhi.

White believes peace begins when the hungry are fed, and the future begins when the hungry are educated.

Gene became committed to helping the hungry children when she was just a child.

She says, “I can still see the sofa and living room where my mother would hold me on her lap and tell me stories. One day when I was 3 years old, Mother told me about children in the world who went to sleep hungry each night. I remember feeling so sorry for them and started to cry. I think this may have started my interest in reaching out to others.”

Sitting with her in front of a glowing fireplace in her church, she pours two cups of coffee in ceramic mugs. She’s articulate, and her natural composure, and caring yet fun-loving demeanor, reflects an American Mother Teresa.

She smiles genuinely and says, “Come here and sit beside me on the couch, won’t you? Are you warm enough, hungry? I could go and get us some breakfast if you like.”

White is internationally known and respected, but her heart is here on South Whidbey, a community she loves.

Robert Brown, superintendent of the South Whidbey School District, says he considers it a distinct privilege of working with Gene on the district’s Wellness Program.

“Gene serves as a consultant and prototype professional. Her ability to work with people is amazing. She always finds the time to attend committee meetings with the district staff as we address nutrition and physical education needs. I consider working with Gene as one of the best opportunities I have ever had in the field of education.”

All children are important to her —especially those who need nourishment so they can learn and become global citizens. Writer and speaker Paula Pugh remarks, “In some countries this is a rather subversive endeavor, because if these kids get educated, it might upset the balance of power in the country. I can barely begin to talk about all the ways she inspires me, by her example of living out her faith and gifts for the betterment of mankind.”

White says in America, including South Whidbey, obesity has become a crisis for our children. She hopes we can hold our feet to the fire and continue to make changes in our school meal programs. “We adults must role-model healthy eating and daily physical exercise.”

Kitty Adams, one of these South Whidbey role models, writes that White’s goal is ending childhood hunger. “Her dream is reconciliation and peace. Many of us affectionaly call her ‘Mother Goose.’ She has even taken in teenagers here on Whidbey to try to help them get back on their feet.”

White could not have her own children, due to illnesses. She and her husband, Bill made attempts to adopt — but then as Bill’s classified work took him away from home for weeks — they decided they would “adopt” children where ever they go.

“Bill promised me we would have a full and beautiful life. How right he was. That has taught me to permit loss to become enriching, not a devastating experience.”

Several times the Whites have taken in troubled teenagers. One 14-year-old boy had come for a weekend and stayed for two years.

Recently Gene saw a teenage boy hitch hiking, and something led her to give him a ride. They became fast friends. She has since tried to get him off drugs, give him a job, and get him back in school. Sadly nothing has worked so far — but she has not given up on him.

“I believe we are our brother’s keeper. The people of South Whidbey live this —just think of all the ways South Whidbey people reach out to help in this community.”

“Many of us are blessed with abundance,” she says. “These gifts make it possible to reach out to others, when we have life’s essentials; food, water, love, health, security, shelter and access to education.”

Out of this abundance of hers, she has accepted assignments in various parts of the world.

“Often at great inconvenience and discomfort, sometimes in places of extreme danger. Gene is 110 percent committed to the cause of feeding the children in this world,” says volunteers Ed and Margaret Bennett.

Many years ago White was on an assignment in a small oasis village in the desert of southern Tunisia.

“I found there that so many of the children were homeless and forging the countryside for food like little animals.”

She had a box of animal crackers with her. All of a sudden she was surrounded by starving homeless children. She began to hand out her animal crackers; there were so many children she broke up the cookies, giving one child a head, another a tail or leg. When her box of animal crackers was empty, a small frail girl maybe 3 years old stretched out her arms for her bit of cookie. White remembers with sadness

“This little child was obviously in the final stages of malnutrition, she had open sores all over her face, maggots and flies were imbedded in her wounds. She was barefoot and dressed in rags with tangled hair that looked as though it had never been combed. I still find it hard to believe I had not even a bit of animal cracker for this starving little girl. I knew then, in that desert village with this tiny child, that those of us who are blessed with abundance are commissioned by these gifts to reach out to others. Sadly, I had nothing to give that child that day, yet she gave so much to me.”

“Childhood hunger and suffering calls out to all of us,” she says. “At times the task of helping seems beyond us. However we must never stop trying. I am reminded that our boat is so small and the sea is so great — but we must keep rowing.”

Some places are changing. “Feeding children at school has become a global priority. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is saving millions of lives through its immunization program for children.”

Back some years, White was the state director of school nutrition services for the California State Department of Education. She got involved with a little desert community called China Lake. White went into the classrooms and taught children how to make themselves one-eyed sandwiches. (A piece of bread with a hole in the middle and a cooked egg in the hole).

She organized programs for students to plan their own school lunches. “After all, the students are the consumers of the school lunches.”

White then heard of a poor mining town 40 miles from China Lake, where almost everyone was unemployed and could not afford a school lunch program. White organized her school to pay for and make lunches for this community, and convinced the post office to deliver them with the mail to the mining town.

“Of course, nothing happens without many people working together,” she says.

Stories of people helping others gives hope. From famous people like Nelson Mandela, who gave half his salary to pay for sandwiches for children in Johannesburg schools. “To this day in South Africa, any sandwich served in schools is called a Mandela sandwich.”

Another inspirational story, she says, are the volunteers of Zimbabwe who help families where the mother is dying with AIDS.

These loving volunteers not only help to see the children obtain food, but they preserve a book of family memories by working with the mother and the children. “The last thing these volunteers do, while the mother is still alive, is work out a way that all the children will be able to stay together after the mother is gone.”

White surely lives out her faith, by providing that slice of bread. For as it says, in Matthew 25:35-40. “I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick or imprisoned and you visited me.”

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