February 24, 2023

The best feeling

10-year-old friends lead children’s ‘army’ and earn national honor for helping others

The smiles of Alexandra “Alex” Daley, left, and Ella Spoonmore show their close friendship, a friendship that has helped the two fifth-grade students at St. Charles Borromeo School in Bloomington lead drives that have collected nearly 10,000 pounds of food in the past two years to help families in southern Indiana. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

The smiles of Alexandra “Alex” Daley, left, and Ella Spoonmore show their close friendship, a friendship that has helped the two fifth-grade students at St. Charles Borromeo School in Bloomington lead drives that have collected nearly 10,000 pounds of food in the past two years to help families in southern Indiana. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

BLOOMINGTON—One of the best parts of meeting Ella Spoonmore and Alexandra “Alex” Daley is seeing their eyes light up with joy when these 10-year-old girls talk about how close they are as friends.

Then there are their laughs, their smiles and their animated looks of delight when they rave about their favorite foods—pasta and French fries for Alex, pizza and macaroni and cheese for Ella, with both of them praising the deliciousness of dill pickles.

“That’s something we share. And we always fight over pickles,” Alex says, her smile mirrored by Ella’s.

Still, the best part of meeting them is learning how they’ve combined the joy of their friendship and their love of food in a wonderful effort that helps others—an effort that has led to national recognition for these two fifth-grade students at St. Charles Borromeo School in Bloomington.

Alex and Ella are among the 11 Catholic school students across the country to receive this year’s Youth Virtues, Valor and Vision Award from the National Catholic Educational Association.

The award “recognizes students in elementary and secondary schools who through selfless service, determination, innovation and strong ideals are changing the world while bearing witness to their Catholic faith.”

The girls received the honor for leading a student-run organization called “Alexandra’s Army,” which has collected nearly 10,000 pounds of food in the past two years to help feed families in need in southern Indiana.

When the girls learned about the honor, it took some time for it to sink in.

“I was really excited,” says Alex, the daughter of Skip and Heather Daley. “And then I kind of just sat down for a while because the TV was on. So I thought about it while watching TV.”

“I had just come home after gymnastics practice and my mom was like, ‘I have a surprise for you,’ ” says Ella, the daughter of Eric and Lindsey Spoonmore. “I was thinking she was going to get me chocolate. Then she said, ‘You won the award.’ And I was like, ‘What?!’ I had ice cream after it, so that was good, too.”

A touch of fun and the start of an army

Actually, the award is not something the two friends ever dreamed of receiving. Instead, their focus has always been on giving—a focus that began for Alex when she was 4, going door-to-door in her neighborhood collecting cans of food for the Hoosier Hills Food Bank.

“Randomly one night, when me and my dad were in the kitchen, he asked me if I wanted to do something to help the community somehow,” Alex recalls. “I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ Then he gave me a whole bunch of options. I chose to do a food drive because it sounded fun. I did my own food drive for four years, and each year I got more and more food.”

After she collected about 150 pounds when she was 8, her approach and her vision expanded. Alexandra’s Army was born from her idea of inviting friends and recruiting other children to work together to collect food for people in need. Ella joined the effort as the secretary and community chair.

“From the beginning, Alexandra’s Army was truly student-led,” notes Kirstin Maxwell, a science teacher at St. Charles Borromeo School.

Maxwell’s admiration shows as she shares how Alex, Ella and their team developed a website to recruit volunteers, contacted businesses for sponsorships and created T-shirts for the volunteers to wear.

“The real heart of the initiative was the recruitment and training of their young peers who hit the streets in an organized operation,” Maxwell says. “Not only had Alexandra and Ella written a script to be read by the volunteers, they had even made a video of the do’s and don’ts of knocking on doors and asking for donations.”

As organized and impressive as the effort was, it all started in the midst of a challenging pandemic that had created a food and hunger crisis for a growing number of families throughout Monroe County and its surrounding counties.

“In Indiana, 14% of the population live below the poverty line, and 12% of Hoosiers struggle to put food on the table daily. This means one in six Indiana children are food insecure,” Maxwell notes. “In our region, these statistics would be much higher without the support of groups such as Alexandra’s Army.

“Our neighboring counties are quite disadvantaged and can offer very little services to their residents. Bloomington supplies many services, including food donations, to all the nonprofit organizations in our county, as well as the surrounding counties. The COVID-19 pandemic turned this long-term problem into a crisis situation.”

Amid that crisis situation and a global pandemic, two girls and their “army” of about 70 children hit the streets to fight hunger and offer hope. In 2021, they collected 4,585 pounds of food. In 2022, their haul increased to 5,011 pounds.

The best feeling

One of Ella’s and Alex’s favorite parts of Alexandra’s Army is the day of the food drive. Each child’s haul of food is individually weighed and announced, leading to a round of cheers and applause for each child. Then the total amount of food collected is added, and the cheers and the applause soar again.

At the end of the day, all the children receive a treat. The first year, it was ice cream. The second year it was pizza. Yet as much as both girls enjoyed the treats, there’s one reward they savor more.

“I really like the feeling afterward knowing that we’ve really helped a lot of people,” Alex says as Ella nods in agreement.

“It’s outstanding what they’ve done,” says Jake Bruner, associate director of Hoosier Hills Food Bank, which serves about 100 member agencies in southern Indiana that ultimately helps feed about 30,000 people each year.

“I think that’s what we should be doing with our youth today. When I started working here about 13 years ago, one of the concerns I had was that the population of our food pantry volunteers was aging. We need to think about the future of social services and security nets in our communities, and that’s going to start from our youth. One of the most important things about Alexandra’s Army is getting kids involved in volunteering and realizing there’s a need out there.”

Alex and Ella and their fellow members of Alexandra’s Army are already starting to gear up for this year’s food drive, which right now they’re planning to hold in June.

The girls see their efforts as living the faith-filled education they are receiving at St. Charles.

“In religion class, we have stories about what Jesus did,” Alex says. “We talk about how to help people.”

“It helps us understand what we can do,” Ella says.

The mention of Jesus leads the girls to consider what he would say about what they and all the members of Alexandra’s Army are doing to help others.

“I think he would be very proud of us,” Alex says.

Ella adds, “I think he would like it.”

Both girls look at each other and smile. It’s a shared smile of accomplishment, satisfaction and, most of all, the joyous feeling of how wonderful it is to have such a close friend. †

Local site Links: