PARIS, Mo. -- Aly Francis, a senior at Paris High School, was heading to the Missouri State Fair with her family last August when they decided to stop at a gas station in Paris to get fuel and something to drink.
Aly and her father were standing in the checkout line when they overheard an elderly woman talking.
"She said all she had to eat was one piece of chicken to feed her family and herself," Aly recalled.
The woman wondered aloud if she should make chicken noodle soup to make the food last longer.
Aly, an FFA member who raises livestock on her family's farm outside of Paris, was shocked to learn that a family in her own hometown didn't have enough food to eat.
"You hear about it happening nationwide, but you never think about it happening in your own community," she said.
Aly couldn't stop thinking about the woman while heading to the state fair, where she showed sheep and hogs that she had raised as FFA projects.
"I was trying to think of ways that I could help," she recalled.
After the fair, an idea came to Aly.
"The light bulb just kind of popped on," she said. "I thought I could donate my pig (that she just showed at the fair) to the local senior center."
That's exactly what she did.
The hog, once butchered, produced 120 pounds of meat for the Paris Senior Center. Some of the meat was served directly to seniors as part of the center's meal program, and some was packaged up and sent home with Monroe County seniors.
That fall, Aly talked about her experience during a Paris Rotary Club meeting and suggested how it would be great if other area youths who show livestock at the state fair would make similar donations.
Denise Damron, executive director of the United Way of the Mark Twain Area, was on hand for that Rotary meeting and heard Aly's presentation.
"I was very touched and inspired," Damron said.
After the meeting, Damron spoke with Aly, and together they hatched a plan for a new initiative sponsored by the United Way.
"Aly's Project: Youth Feeding the Needy" was rolled out earlier this month. It is designed to give 4-H and FFA members in five area counties served by the United Way of the Mark Twain Area an opportunity to donate their livestock at the end of the fair season. The livestock will then be butchered and given to a local food pantry or senior center of the youth's choice.
In an interview, Damron said she decided to launch this initiative because she was touched by Aly's "giving spirit" and wanted to find a way to give other area youths an opportunity to help people in need.
"Our mission at United Way is to increase the capacity of people to care for one another," Damron said.
In this case, she said, 4-H and FFA youths in Monroe, Lewis, Marion, Ralls and Shelby counties will now have the opportunity to directly help local families and individuals who don't have enough food.
"The facts are just staggering when we look at food insecurity within our communities," Damron said.
"Meat products are expensive, and high-quality meat products are out of the question for so many families. So this will provide an opportunity for those families to have high-quality protein."
Damron said area youths interested in donating their livestock are invited to sign up on the United Way's website at unitedwaymta.org/special-initiatives.
She said the General Mills Foundation's Hometown Grantmaking Program gave the United Way a $4,500 allocation to help pay for the processing of donated livestock so the youthful donors won't have any out-of-pocket costs. She said other donations are being sought to help defray costs.
"We're excited about this," Damron said. "Our goal now is to recruit kids to donate their projects. We've had a lot of interest."
Damron said the initiative matches up well with the goals of FFA and 4-H chapters in the area that "are working really hard to combat food insecurity and make students aware of that."
Aly said she's delighted to see the United Way taking an active role in promoting a project that will help provide food to area residents who need it.
Aly said she knows several 4-H and FFA members who have already expressed an interest in donating their livestock at the end of this year's fair season.
"Kids these days are wanting to help out as much as possible," she said.
"I hope this project keeps growing and reaches other kids in other counties and other clubs. I'm excited for it to grow and prosper."