Francis Chau was an enthusiastically involved sophomore when history teacher and basketball coach Dennis Dougherty noticed she and her sister skipping lunches at Gonzaga Prep in 2010.
He recognized the behavior – indicative of a hollow stomach at school. So he began keeping food in his classroom for the girls and other hungry students.
When the school’s annual food drive rolled around that November, Chau began ferociously soliciting support from the community to draw in donations: tabling outside grocery stores and urging healthy competition in her peers.
“It’s hard also to differentiate from someone who’s trying to resumé-build for college and somebody who this is just their DNA,” Dougherty said. “It’s Francis’ DNA.”
The Gonzaga Prep food drive is a tradition spanning more than 60 years. Last year, the school collected 127,000 pounds of food and distributed packages to more than 300 families around Spokane. Students raise money and hand-deliver packages of food expected to last at least a month to families in need. When a Gonzaga Prep family requests a delivery, a staff member does the delivery to keep their request anonymous.
Chau and Dougherty are now colleagues at G-Prep, and their work together on this year’s food drive brought out a benevolent secret more than a decade old.
While at G-Prep, Chau’s mom lost her minimum wage job that was the family’s primary source of income. Her parents requested a box, but kept their kids in the dark.
“Food was a scarcity in itself,” Chau said. “So I was like, ‘How are we going to make ends meet?’ But God always provided for us. I was never worried about it.”
She wasn’t alone in this feeling. Dougherty’s family had also received donations from his brother’s school’s food drive when he was young, recalling the core memory of euphoria over sugary cereals his family wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford delivered to his door.
Dougherty knew instantly that when Chau’s family was requesting a delivery, it would be him on their doorstep.
“He also knew what it was like to grow up poor and not be able to know when your next meal was going to be,” Chau said.
Chau saw nonperishables line the walls of her school and wondered why her family didn’t ask for some.
Sneakily building a delivery for Chau’s family, Dougherty selected food specifically for them. Rice, which he said they ate a lot of, and plenty of sugary snacks to satisfy the Chau sisters’ sweet tooth.
For 10 years, Dougherty got away with it. It wasn’t until the two co-workers were reflecting on the food drive’s long history that Chau learned his secret. Dougherty casually mentioned he’d been to Chau’s house before and revealed the truth.
The two were always close, but Chau didn’t realize the extent of their bond all this time.
“By putting the pieces together, the year that I was super motivated, super involved with the food drive in my classroom, just across the hallway in the history wing was my mentor who was collecting food for my family and delivering it while I was delivering at different houses,” Chau said.
They shared their common history with the rest of the school at an assembly promoting the food drive, which Chau said touched some students in attendance.
“I really tell my students, you know, you’re thinking that you’re bringing in food for some family that you’ve kind of made up in your mind,” Dougherty said. “Well, no, you’re bringing in food for the Doughertys.”
Chau works in the Office of Service & Justice and in equity and campus ministries at Gonzaga Prep. A page from the Dougherty playbook, she operates a discreet food pantry in her office for students in a situation she knows all too well.
“People put others down and say, ‘Why can’t you afford food? Why are you unable to feed your family?’” Chau said. “But behind all of it, the way that I talk to my students is that we don’t know people’s stories. And it’s not up to us to make that determination of whether or not someone is deserving of food.”
The two have been tight since Chau’s time as a Gonzaga Prep pupil. Through the years, she babysat Dougherty’s kids, who call her “Auntie Fran.” Chau’s kids consider the Doughertys grandparent-adjacent. Chau’s wedding portraits feature three sets of parental units: her and her husband’s parents and the Doughertys.
In his 30 years teaching, no student has moved Dougherty quite like Chau.
“We kind of talk about certain students, and we refer to them as like a purple unicorn, because they’re so rare and unique and you just don’t see them come through very often,” Dougherty said. “And yeah, she was that.”