Meet an inspiring local hero. As a leader behind Student Success Stores, Sarai Exil is helping students throughout central Ohio get access to basic needs.

While serving in schools through AmeriCorp, Sarai noticed many students were unable to meet their basic needs. Knowing how this lack of resources impacts learning, she helped launch Student Success Stores, a nonprofit providing students with free food, hygiene products, clothing and school supplies. Since winning United Way’s Pitch to Ditch Poverty grant in 2015, and with United Way of Central Ohio’s continued support, Student Success Stores has helped more than 700 central Ohio students.

“United Way has been one of our biggest partners since the beginning. They gave us $7,500 in seed money to start our first three stores,” said Sarai. “That was a whirlwind of a year—learning how to provide the service, but also realizing how many lives were being changed simply by having a space where basic needs are met.”

Her “stores” are a safe, anonymous space where students are treated with dignity as they shop for the items they need for school and for their families. Whatever item a student might not have – whether it be deodorant, a notebook or a healthy snack – Sarai is passionate about providing it. You can also hear that passion in her voice and see it in her face when she talks about the dedicated teachers and school staff members she works with through Student Success Stores.

When she realized that teachers and school staff were using their own time, money and resources to help their students, she decided the community needed to show up. In fact, 91% of the teachers surveyed by Student Success Stores at three schools were paying for and purchasing hygiene items, food or clothing for their students.

When COVID first hit, she says, it was devastating for so many families, plus students were no longer able to access the stores. Student Success Stores was suddenly asked to step up and provide hygiene items to students and families far beyond several schools, but across the Columbus City Schools district. The small nonprofit, which relies on volunteers, shifted all operations to the creation and delivery of 7,000+ monthly emergency supply kits for CCS students and their families.

The Student Success Store waiting list is so long, says Sarai, adding that it’s an enormous amount of pressure to be able to meet basic needs for students across our community. But she remains hopeful and confident that our community will continue to pull together to support children and provide equitable access to resources that help every student reach their full potential. And she’s grateful for the partnership of United Way.

“United Way is such a great connector,” she says emphatically. “This work can be really, really hard. United Way has this way of bringing us all together. Giving us the resources we need.”

But United Way’s partnership is about much more than funding, she says. It’s about lifting up nonprofits, giving them ideas and encouraging them along in the work. With continued help from United Way donors, Sarai hopes to expand the stores to every school in every district where students are lacking the essentials needed to begin each day healthy, confident and ready to learn.

Join us by making your gift to our Community Response Fund to provide equitable access to resources that help every student reach their full potential.



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