Local teen works to feed hungry children

After reading how the COVID-19 outbreak could lead to more hunger, a Stone County teenager is using her free time to help.

For the past six weeks, 17-year-old Lydia Jiles has been providing 100 to 200 free meals to children on Saturdays.

“I was just scrolling through social media and I was just thinking that this pandemic is really going to hurt the children who really depend on school lunches,” Jiles said.

She knew many families would take advantage of free lunches provided during the week. With unemployment on the rise, Jiles realized that providing meals was the best way to help.

"I’m blessed, so I was like,'Why not bless others?’” Jiles said. “This is something that really needs to be done.”

In Mississippi, 573,610 people struggle with hunger, and 163,530 are children, according to Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks.

According to data complied by the United States Census Bureau, an estimated 20 percent of the Stone County population lives below the federal poverty line already.

Once Jiles explained the plan to her mother and grandmother, they were ready to help.

“I couldn’t do this with out my mom and my grandmother,” Jiles said.

Jiles and her mother go to Sam’s Club and pick up whatever she needs.

“I wasn’t surprised,” her mother, Yadhnee Ramey said. “She has a big heart and a giving heart…so we got right on it.”

Ramey said they cannot buy supplies too far ahead. Otherwise, she would not have room for their own weekly groceries.

“She would have my refrigerator full of Lunchables and fruit,” Ramey said with a smile.

The morning of or the night before, they pack the brown lunch bags, she said. Jiles tries to include nutritious food, but chooses items easy for a young child to prepare for themselves.

“This past week we (packed) macaroni cups, juice, fruit cups and gummy treats. The week before we did Lunchables with juice and chips,” Jiles explained.

The snow ball stand, Tropical Paradise in Wiggins is owned by Lydia’s aunt and uncle. When they learned of her plan, they pledged a free snow cone with every lunch.

If meals are leftover, she and her mother drive through neighborhoods to give away the rest.

“Some parents might be at work and the kids are at homes alone. They can’t get down to the snowball stand,” Jiles said.

Jiles knows some of the meals might be a child’s dinner as well, which is why she includes plenty of snacks.

“We also give cereal so then the next morning they’ll have breakfast,” Jiles said.

Each of her family members made posts on Facebook to spread the news. Some heard about free meals for children by word of mouth.

At the Tropical Paradise, Jiles hands out bags from 11 to 1 p.m. on Saturdays.

She says many of the young children have memorized her face. When they see her during the week, the wave and tell her they cannot wait for the next snow cone.

“They are so excited,” Jiles said. “That makes me so excited that they look forward to that. I’m just glad to make their day.”

The smiles are payment in itself for Jiles, whose family has supported her program.

Jiles said sometimes people bring by donations while she works at Tropical Paradise, which helps fund the weekend meals.

During the week, Jiles studies her own coursework from 8 a.m. to 12:05 online. She is currently a junior at Presbyterian Christian School where she belongs to numerous honor societies. Before school went online, she was a volunteer math tutor. She also played on the basketball team.

Jiles said the drive is the only thing about school she doesn't miss.

“I like it better that I don’t have to drive to Hattiesburg every day, but I’d rather be in class taking tests and quizzes and learning all of my material, so this has kind of been a tough transition for me,” Jiles said.

She has been picking up extra hours at the snow ball stand and trying to re-map a few of her upended summer plans.

Jiles was scheduled to attend Girls State in Hattiesburg and attend the University of Miami's Summer Scholars Program.

Although the Summer Scholars program will be online, Jiles would have preferred visiting in person.

She was also selected to attend the Congress of Future Medical Leaders in Boston where she would study infectious diseases.

“I want to study infectious diseases (as a career) and I would get six college credits for attending,” Jiles said.

The fact that an infectious disease is what disrupted her plans is not lost on her.

“I find it quite ironic,” Jiles said with a laugh.

After high school, Jiles has plans to become a doctor.

“I am trying to figure out if I want to go to Howard University in D.C. or the University of Miami. Those are my top two choices. I want to major in either bio-chemistry or biology,” Jiles said.

Until then, Jiles said she will continue to serve meals as long as she can.

"I’m going to do what I’ve been doing,” Jiles said.

If any would like to donate toward free meals, they can send a check to Lydia Jiles at P.O. Box 745, Wiggins, MS, 39577.