Standing at only 5 feet and 2 inches, Kay Kay DeRossette is the muscle behind Be Mighty Little Rock. A fifth-generation native of Vicksburg, Mississippi, DeRossette went to the same Catholic school from pre-K to senior year. In her small town, everyone knew everyone.
Her journey to Be Mighty Little Rock is a bit out of the ordinary, starting with the fact that she majored in Exercise Science at the University of Mississippi.
“When I started college, I thought I wanted to be in the healthcare field,” DeRossette said. “I tried pharmacy then switched to pre-nursing. Ole Miss does not have a nursing school at the main campus in Oxford, and by the time I got ready to apply to nursing school I had fallen in love with main campus life. I decided to switch my major to Exercise Science with the goal of completing an accelerated nursing degree. But I never applied to nursing school.”
Fortunately, DeRossette’s campus involvement aided her transition into the nonprofit sector. Her most stellar experience was an internship for The Green Grove Campaign with the Office of Sustainability at Ole Miss. This became a three-year project and ultimately a permanent fixture on campus that is still in operation today. The campaign increased ecological awareness, improved education around football game-day recycling, and eventually led her to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
DeRossette explained the project with nostalgia. “The Environmental Protection Agency hosted a game-day challenge where colleges and universities reported diversion rate for one football game.” [Diversion rate measures how much waste avoids landfills and becomes reusable or compostable –ed.] “The University of Arkansas was the only SEC school to rank in the top ten. I was impressed with their abilities to divert waste on game day and saw them as a leader in the south. My co-curricular experiences in undergrad led me to pursue a master’s in Higher Education and graduate certificate in Sustainability from the University of Arkansas.”
Her time at the University of Arkansas was well spent as she worked in the Center for Community Engagement as the Food Programs Graduate Assistant. She was able to successfully support student leaders from the Full Circle Campus Food Pantry and Razorback Food Recovery program. Together, they were able to recover 50,000 pounds of food from campus dining halls.
After graduating from the University of Arkansas, DeRossette was hired as a Feeding America: Child Hunger Corps member at the Arkansas Food Bank in Little Rock. She values what she learned there. “Arkansas Food Bank was a great experience and where I was first introduced to federal nutrition programs. I also learned a lot about nonprofits and the Feeding America Network.”
Sitting in her office with décor in sharp purple, green and blue for Be Mighty Little Rock, DeRossette enthusiastically shared how she became the engine behind the anti-hunger campaign.
“The City of Little Rock had received a grant to create an anti-hunger campaign. With this grant, the city led a partnership including the Central Arkansas Library System, the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, and the Little Rock School District to launch Be Mighty Little Rock.”
“A friend heard the advertisement for this position on the radio one morning and told me they thought it would be a good fit for me—I decided to apply,” she said. “I was on a run one day and got a call in the middle of the run offering me the position.”
Her acceptance of the position was a good thing for Little Rock. Seldom does a coordinator gracefully wear so many hats and count it all as joy. With her infectious smile and calm demeanor, DeRossette shared what roles bring her the most satisfaction as well as difficulty.
“I enjoy visiting meal sites, meeting site coordinators, and observing meal service in action. Seeing families participate in our programs is the most rewarding part of this job. I get stressed if something goes wrong with a delivery, or if a volunteer that we had scheduled to work meal service does not show up. The day-to-day logistical stuff can bring stress, but it’s an important part of the program.”
While day-to-day operations can be hectic, it’s Be Mighty’s potential that keeps DeRossette invested and engaged. She feels that this potential for creativity and innovation grounds her. However, there have been hard truths she has had to both learn and accept in this industry.
“There is always going to be more work that can be done, or things that can be improved,” she said. “I try identifying resources to implement positive change one step at a time, rather than getting bogged down by trying to alleviate poverty and save the world. I ask myself, what can I do to make things better today? Then I try to do it.”
If one person can’t save the world, how do they measure success? While data might be the most obvious choice, DeRossette believes that data does not always tell the entire story. An increase in program participants is a major win but not the only objective. DeRossette also measures success through partnerships.
During the 2019-2020 school year, Be Mighty partnered with the Little Rock School District to sponsor 16 after-school meal sites. This initiative was a major success because local resources and networks were utilized to combat a local problem. Since then, Be Mighty has connected local nonprofits to the Department of Human Resources to help them become USDA meal sponsors.
Be Mighty Little Rock’s goals for the 2020-2021 school year still include connecting families with meals, but now it’s time to consider expanding meal sites, adding screening and referrals, and focusing on meal quality. DeRossette is passionate about these efforts.
“Providing complete meal coverage is a goal for 2020. This means having various locations serving meals at different times and days in target neighborhoods,” she said. “Another goal is to build a food security screening and referral system for our website. This will help us connect families in need to additional resources like SNAP, WIC, transportation, and food pantries. Food quality is one of my biggest passions. I would love to make improvements to the quality of food provided through these programs.”
Nothing is standing in the way of DeRossette’s goals, not even COVID-19. While the pandemic changed how meals are served, it did not stop the entire operation. Before the pandemic, it was required for students to eat their meals while on the premises of a meal site. But after the virus struck, USDA allowed students to grab a meal and go offsite throughout the summer months.
While USDA has not approved a waiver for grab-and-go after-school meals, Be Mighty Little Rock is working to figure out the best solution. Be Mighty will continue to provide meals for the community but also make sure that staff and participants will be safe during the coronavirus pandemic.
Be Mighty Little Rock becomes more efficient each year. What would it look like for the campaign to prepare its own meals and expand to other counties? While it might be too soon to tell, DeRossette is working to create more depth for Be Mighty Little Rock. With the support of the Central Arkansas Library System, she is able to implement innovative solutions to solving hunger in our community.