Ryan Kyote, 9, has long had a passion for helping others.
Since the start of the academic year at West Park Elementary School in Napa, California, Kyote had been using his lunch card to buy meals for students who could not afford to eat. But last month the boy decided to take his kindness a step further.
After learning a 5-year-old in Indiana was denied lunch because they were unable to pay for the meal, Kyote decided to use six months of allowance he had saved up to pay off the school lunch debt for his third-grade classmates.
“He was like, ‘I don’t understand why that happened. Why would that happen to a 5-year-old?’ “his mother Kylie Kirkpatrick tells PEOPLE. “It really touched him in a way and he wanted to do something so that wouldn’t happen to his friends. We talked about what we could do to make a difference locally.”
With that, the mother-son duo contacted officials at West Park Elementary and learned that the district does not turn away students who can’t pay for lunch. However, the students incur a bill (a lunch debt) at the end of the school year, which Kirkpatrick says is a burden for families.
West Park Elementary School did not immediately respond to a request for comment from PEOPLE.
Kyote decided to use his saved allowance to pay off as much of the school debt as he could. Kirkpatrick says Kyote usually buys sports and ballet gear with hie money, but was eager to foot the $74.80 bill to help his classmates. On May 24, he and his mother went to the school district’s business office and paid the bill.
“Then we went to his school, walked into his school’s front office. Ryan handed the receipt to the secretary and said, ‘Can you let my friends know that they don’t owe any more money?’ ” Kirkpatrick tells PEOPLE. “Then he skipped off to class. This has been really empowering for him … he knows now what kind of power he has and what he’s capable of doing and we can use it for good. It doesn’t matter how old you are, look at what you can do.”
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Kyote’s story has made headlines in recent days, with social media users praising him for the good deed. But the incident has also highlighted what many have called the injustice of school lunch debt — which Kirkpatrick says is not lost on her.
“I appreciate the passion and I appreciate the outrage. Part of me is heartbroken that [lunch debt] is even a thing,” she says. “It shouldn’t be a problem. But I was also empowered that a 9-year-old boy from Napa, California, has created such a media storm targeting children internationally that are left at school all day hungry. It’s just incredible.”
Kyote isn’t the first person to tackle the school lunch debt crisis. There are fundraising efforts across the country, including in Texas, Washington, Rhode Island, Ohio and other states. Last month, a Rhode Island school district reversed a policy that would have made students with lunch debt eat cold sun butter and jelly sandwiches instead of hot lunch options. Around that time, Philando Castile‘s mother, Valerie Castile, gave $8,000 to Robbinsdale Cooper High School in New Hope, Minnesota, to clear lunch debts for students preparing to graduate.
“‘School lunch debt’ should not exist in the wealthiest country in the history of the world,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders responded to the news in a tweet on Monday. Journalist Mark Ames added: “This country is deranged — children who don’t want to starve become debtors before they’re 10. Up to 30 million USA children rely on these school lunch programs just to eat.”
The Napa Valley Unified School District did not immediately respond to a request for comment from PEOPLE.
About 30 million students each day in 100,000 schools and educational institutions in the United States are provided with meals under the federal National School Lunch Program, according to the School Nutrition Association. About 20 million of those meals are free, while 7.7 million are paid in full and 1.8 million are served at a reduced price, according to the association reported.
“School lunch debt” should not exist in the wealthiest country in the history of the world.— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) June 10, 2019
When we are in the White House, we are going to provide year-round, free universal school meals. https://t.co/09z1PdR4WG
The average lunch debt incurred by U.S. students was $2,500, association spokesperson Ms. Pratt-Heavner told the New York Times.
Some critics say Kyote should not have had to pay the lunch debt with his allowance, and that the feel-good act overshadows the need for real policy change.
All these stories about kids using their saved allowances and bake sale profits etc to pay off their entire class school lunch debt in a country where we have billionaires is depressing as hell.— God-is Rivera (@GodisRivera) June 11, 2019
However, Kirkpatrick says Kyote was more than happy to help his friends.
“I agree that he shouldn’t have to, but I think that he is a member of our community so he ought to. I teach my kids that when you see something that needs to be improved on and somebody voice isn’t being heard, then you get loud for them.”