Iowa City High alum honors student through food, book pantry

City High alum Maggie Ballard wants to honor her former classmate through advocacy, and has done so by creating a volunteer pantry and library at the high school.


Braden Ernst

Iowa City High School is seen on Monday, April 25, 2022.

Virginia Russell, News Reporter

Just outside the music entrance of Iowa City High School sits a testament to friendship and advocacy in action. Emma’s Little Free Pantry and Little Free Library is just that.

Created by former City High student Maggie Ballard for her friend and classmate Emma Nugent, the Little Free Pantry/Library was a way to honor her memory.

Nugent died unexpectedly in July 2020 during the summer before what would have been her senior year. Her passing had a widespread effect on the community, Ballard said.

During that time, Ballard said she realized she wanted to dedicate something tangible to Nugent that could be utilized by the community.

“I felt like, a lot of times, people will have bracelets, or there will be a hashtag or some type of movement,” Ballard said. “Everyone came together and grieved for her, but at the same time, there wasn’t any outward thing, so I thought I could start something like that by dedicating this pantry to her.”

Nugent was also involved in volunteer work around the community, and Ballard thought she would have liked something service-based to remember her by.

“Once I thought of that, I was for sure going to do that,” Ballard said. “I just thought it was the best idea.”

The project started during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ballard, who was doing online school, had lots of free time.

“It’s that mindset of the pandemic and having so much time to deal with that made me think, well, why not?” Ballard said.

After buying materials from Lowe’s and Habitat for Humanity ReStore, Ballard started building the pantry. She completed the project by winter 2020.

Ballard reached out to multiple organizations in the Iowa City area, but none were able to take Emma’s Little Free Pantry/Library. Then, her dad suggested City High.

“We didn’t have a place, and my dad was like, ‘Why don’t we put it at the school?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, that sounds cool, but I doubt that they would ever let me do that,’” Ballard said.

She was wrong. When she mentioned it to Scott Jespersen, who was the City High vice principal at the time, he welcomed the idea.

“He was incredibly helpful the second I mentioned it to him. He was willing to do anything to make it happen,” Ballard said. “From there, it kind of fell right into place.”

Currently, the pantry is located in the music wing of City High. Ballard said she chose the music wing as the location as an extra nod to Nugent. Both girls participated in band while they attended City High.

“It makes me happy that we were able to put it right there because that was a really big part of my experience at City, and also Emma’s, was being in band,” Ballard said.

The pantry and library are divided into two separate doors: one for food donations and one for books. To promote pantry donations, Ballard also recruited the Rotary Interact Club, a community service club at City High. Interact Club kept track of donations and restocked the pantry when it was empty, she said.

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Currently, the City High sector of iJAG, a service and leadership program for students in the district, handles the pantry side of the project, City High Principal John Bacon wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan.

“One of our classes, the iJAG program, has helped keep it stocked over the years. Occasionally, they will run a drive seeking donations to make sure we keep it nicely stocked,” Bacon wrote.

For the library side, people can donate and take any book of their choosing. Ballard said there is a new book every time she visits.

“I never see the same type of books. There’s been textbooks and more schoolbooks, and last time I was there, my mom ended up taking a book because she was like, ‘Oh, this looks really good,’” Ballard said.

Ballard said over two years later, she is pleased with the response and sees it as proof of City High’s interest in the project.

“The fact that it’s still going and there has never been a time where it’s not been kept up really shows how the people at City High are and that they do care about each other and also can be generous,” Ballard said.

Bacon is also satisfied with the success and wants the pantry and library to be a sign of Nugent’s legacy for students.

“I hope every time students see the pantry-library, they think of Emma and remember what a wonderful person she was. Kind and wanting to help others,” Bacon wrote.

Ballard hopes she can keep Nugent’s memory alive for years to come through the project.

“It’s nice to see Emma’s name up there,” Ballard said. “Every time I go, I think, this is something that Emma hopefully would have done. She would have loved it.”