PORTLAND, Ore. -- A Portland man fighting cancer has decided to take up another fight. He has decided to help families pay off debts they owe to the Portland Public School District.
From his hospital room, getting chemotherapy for his cancer, Sean Sexton remembers his childhood. He was raised by a single mom, often eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch.
“When I did want a hot lunch, I actually did have to work in the cafeteria to pay for it so if you're not out on the playground and you're back with the lunch ladies, all the kids know. So you get bullied,” Sexton said.
That's why it hit home when this week he read a national article about school lunch shaming, where kids who can't pay for a hot lunch are singled out and are sometimes made to work for their meal or wear a bracelet or stamp.
“If the rest of us can help, then why would we not?” Sexton asked.
So he decided to help kids and families in Portland pay off their debt. He called the district and found out there was roughly $30,000 in student lunch debt. He set up a GoFundMe account.
“It's awesome. We were so excited when Sean contacted our department and wanted to do this for the kids here in Portland,” said Gitta Grether-Sweeney, the Senior Director for Nutrition Services for Portland Public Schools.
She said the district does not single kids out when they can't pay. Instead, parents get phone calls or notes.
A parent we spoke to said while he is fortunate, he knows of many other parents and kids who will benefit from the help.
“It’s very touching, very touching. I think it’s amazing what he’s doing for the kids that can’t afford lunches,” said Neil Wilhelm, a parent.
“Every little cost adds up. Being able to get the clothes the kids need, and the school supplies, and play sports and all those things. It's expensive,” he said.
State lawmakers are also getting involved in the effort to combat lunch shaming. House Bill 3454, chief sponsored by House Republican Leader Mike McLane (R-Powell Butte) and Representative Brian Clem (D-Salem), was introduced this year. It would make it illegal to publicly identify or stigmatize students who are in debt and for kids to work to pay for their lunch.
Back in his hospital room, Sexton is committed to doing what he can.
“I've received so much help from my work, from my doctors, how can I not do something to help others?” he said.
It's expected Sexton will fully recover from his form of cancer.
In Seattle, a similar effort is underway. A man there raised more than $40,000 to pay off student debt. Singer John Legend also donated. Sexton hopes for a similar response in Portland.
Grether-Sweeney said the Portland Public School District is self-funded. It doesn't get money from the general fund. It gets about $3.15 from the government for every meal it serves. That's why it's so important for the district to collect debts.
“Kids get textbooks for free. If they also got school lunch free, if it were free for everyone, this wouldn't be a problem,” Grether-Sweeney said.