Houston student seeks to serve peers with lasting advocacy

May 11, 2020

According to study after study, college students suffer food insecurity at alarming rates. Many face the reality of having no idea where their next meal will come from. Houston MSW student Joyelle Gaines hopes, however, to make this a thing of the past with a new venture called the Joy Store.

The Joy Store is a student food pantry that opened this semester on our Houston Campus thanks to Joyelle’s advocacy, and she hopes it will help students just like her.

“There is a common misconception that college students, especially graduate students, have no issues with food insecurity. But I am a first-generation student that has struggled with both finances and food insecurity during the two years I have been at Baylor,” Joyelle said. “During Christmas break, I was talking to my husband about how diverse the student body was at our Houston Campus, in so many aspects. I shared with him how I was noticing this year, through conversations, there were many more students than I originally perceived that were in need in some of the same ways I had been.”

At the main campus in Waco, Baylor had established The Store and Fridge programs, and Joyelle thought how great it would be to have something like that in Houston for students there. The wheels began to turn!

“I wanted to start something like this to support the students here in Houston, and to let stakeholders and others know: grad students are struggling too,” Joyelle said. “We can't always afford books and many of us are in student loan debt or are living off loans. Some of us haven't eaten, and we are still putting in a minimum of 40 hours a week between an internship, work and class. I think programs like the Joy Store is important for so many reasons.”

GSSW Lecturer Emma Taylor, one of Joyelle’s instructors, said Joyelle contacted her at the end of the fall semester to talk about an idea she had to help Houston students who were struggling.

“Joyelle hoped we could start a pantry for Houston Campus students who were struggling with food insecurity as they balanced full-time graduate school, internship 20 hours a week, marriage, parenting, family and some not able to work on top of it all,” Emma said.

To gauge the scope of student needs, Emma sent out a needs-assessment. Of the students who responded, 60% screened positive for food insecurity. Emma first tried to establish a partnership with the Houston Food Bank, just to find out the school did not qualify. Emma and Joyelle then reached out to the Office of Student Success Initiatives (SSI) at the Waco Campus, the team that runs The Store and Fridge programs, with the hopes of learning how to better frame their scope and expectations for what could be possible in Houston and to learn how the SSI team could help. Michelle Cohenour, director of SSI, was encouraged and excited about bringing a food pantry to the Houston Campus. It was then, things really began to take off.

“Michelle and her team offered to reallocate some of their donor funds to help get us started,” Emma said. “This gave us the opportunity to pilot the program and to understand the scale prior to seeking more permanent donor or grant funding.”

The SSI team received approval for the funding reallocation during Spring Break, right as the COVID-19 chaos hit. With the Houston Campus closed, the building that houses the campus closed, and a shelter-in-place order enacted, this left one option. Emma’s home became the first official pantry location. The idea was to have students contact her about picking up food and her porch could be a place for non-contact distribution. And that’s just what happened! Three students came by to pick up food within the first 24 hours!

“The Joy Store has been stocked by purchases from [the SSI] team and donations from professors,” Emma said. “It will be open for the public to make in-kind donations through an Amazon wish list. When the campus re-opens, the pantry will relocate there.”

The Joy Store will fill an ongoing need that is often overlooked, and it will make a lasting impact on the lives of Houston Campus students.

Joyelle said during her time as a student, she has been lucky enough to have the help of others along her journey, and this food pantry could be a way for her to help pass that on to other students like herself.

“I have been blessed during this time to receive assistance, in a multitude of ways to help me stay afloat the last two years,” Joy said, “and this could be the first step to supporting graduate students in a different way at Baylor Houston.”

Emma said she decided to name the pantry the Joy Store after Joyelle because without her and her compassion, none of this would be possible.

“Joyelle graduates in May, but, thanks to her advocacy, the Joy Store will continue to meet student needs long after she completes our program,” Emma said.

For more information, contact Emma at Emma_Taylor@baylor.edu. To donate items to the Joy Store, please visit the Amazon wish list. Purchases will be shipped directly to Emma for distribution to students.