New name for WMU program reflects commitment to support students' Essential Needs

Contact: Kaitlynn Boot

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University's Invisible Need Project transitioned this fall to Essential Needs, a name change that more accurately reflects the role the program serves in students’ lives. A division of WMU's Department of Student Affairs, the program supports students who need food or self-care items or are experiencing emergency financial hardship through the generosity of WMU faculty, staff, students, alumni and the greater Kalamazoo community.

“The University has recognized that these unmet needs are no longer invisible on campus, and that these unmet needs are also essential to student success, which is why we changed our name,” says Donielle Easlick, Essential Needs program manager. “We know that unmet basic needs can prevent students from attending class or even graduating. The name change is a very deliberate choice to really put that reality up front and kind of own that, and claim it, and really be there to help students with what they need.”

Anna L. Roeder and Donielle Easlick

Left to right, Anna L. Roeder, food pantry graduate assistant, and Donielle Easlick, Essential Needs program manager, are pictured at Bronco Bash 2023.

“Essential Needs is our commitment and promise to put the focus on the holistic care of our students,” adds Dr. Reetha Raveendran, dean of students. “We want to provide students with resources that will enable and empower them to move beyond their circumstances so that they can academically engage and successfully graduate. Every program within Essential Needs has an important value in the life of a student who seeks help.” 

Now in its ninth year of operation, the newly named Essential Needs helps reduce basic needs insecurities to help Western students thrive and graduate. Essential Needs works directly with on-campus and community partners to manage:

  • The Essential Needs Food Pantry, a donation-based food pantry which distributes frozen and shelf-stable food items, limited fresh food and personal care products to registered WMU students with unmet basic needs.
  • Broncos. Period., a program that seeks to end period poverty by offering free, single-use and sustainable menstrual products around campus.
  • Student Emergency Relief Fund (SERF), a fund offered via application for students experiencing urgent financial hardships outside of the expected costs of education.

The demand for these needed services has skyrocketed in recent years. During the 2022-23 academic year alone, Essential Needs saw a 60% increase in applications for the Student Emergency Relief Fund and served 63% more students in the food pantry than years prior. And program staff say they don’t anticipate demand to slow down this year; the food pantry has already experienced a 223% increase in student visitors from July 1 to Sept. 30.

“When we were founded, WMU staff were overhearing conversations or having interactions with students who were struggling, and it seemed at the time like isolated pockets of need,” Easlick says. “But that is no longer the case. The need is just larger than ever, and that’s why I would say it’s no longer ‘invisible.’ It’s a very unfortunate but well-known need on this campus now.”  

Anna L. Roeder, a second-year graduate student enrolled in the counseling master’s program at WMU and the current graduate assistant at the Essential Needs Food Pantry, hopes the name change will reach a broader range of students experiencing that need but who may not be aware such resources exist.  

“It is my hope that the name change will raise more awareness of the existence of the on-campus food pantry and the Essential Needs programs in general, among both students and departments on campus,” she says.  

For Easlick, the rebrand is also a vital step in combating the stigma many food insecure students face when taking advantage of on-campus resources. “I hope [rebranding] helps us attack the stigma and the shame around asking for help, because these things are essential for any human, including students. These are just basic needs essential for life. I’m really glad we are now taking the stance that these services are essential to your success here on campus and you deserve these services.” 

Officers Grant Allers, Michael Lininger and K9 Brax

Left to right, WMU Public Safety officers Michael Lininger and Grant Allers and K9 Brax at their September 2023 "Cram the Cruiser" Food Drive for Essential Needs.

Students, faculty and staff looking to help support Essential Needs this year can do so in a variety of ways. Hosting food drives to help the food pantry collect food, personal care products and school supplies throughout the year helps ensure items are available year-round. Fund drives and monetary donations are highly encouraged as the funds raised allow the Essential Needs team the flexibility to provide fresh food and other items based on changing student needs. Volunteers are also always needed for day-to-day pantry operations and to assist with annual food and fund drives like “Pack the Pantry” throughout the fall and “Share the Love” in February.

Spreading the word about Essential Needs services also can make a huge difference for students in need. “Walking students down to the food pantry, hanging posters or including information about the programs and services in your syllabus would be great ways to promote these services to students,” Easlick recommends. “My goal this year is to have the whole campus community get more involved and bridge that disconnect between simply having a food pantry on campus and recognizing that hunger and unmet basic needs are a problem in our community.” 

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.