Honoring Arek Gustafson’s Memory Through Weekend Kits

Arek Gustafson is remembered by his friends and family for his fun-loving spirit and kind heart.

In March 2021, Matt and Tamah Gustafson experienced the devastating loss of their son, Arek.

“He was six and three-quarters years old when he passed away, but he just made such a connection with all ages. You’d see him and want to chat with him because he was so mature for his age,” remembers Tamah. “He loved playing Legos and playing with Nerf guns — he was a boy’s boy, but he had such a big heart and cared so much for his friends and family.

Tamah also recalls Arek as a “little hustler” with a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and the vegetable stand he started at their Mason home that went on to inspire their work with Weekend Survival Kits and now, Greater Lansing Food Bank (GLFB).

“In the summer of 2020, he wanted to go into our garden and pick stuff to build his own store,” said Tamah. “He started making quite a bit of money because people were thinking ‘oh, that’s neat, this little kid has a vegetable stand.’”

After Arek’s death, Tamah took time off work and found herself frequently in the garden, connecting with the soil, plants and fresh outdoor air as a natural part of her healing. Matt and Tamah’s neighbor, Amy, suggested the family run a vegetable stand like “Arek’s Store” to honor his memory.

“At first, I was like, ‘absolutely not, no way.’ I didn’t have the energy to do it,” said Tamah. “But I was spending so much time in the garden anyway, I started to think, ‘she might have a good idea, you know?’”

Kits packed by Arek’s friends and family in March 2024 included custom stickers and two of his favorite toys — Legos and Play-Doh.

Matt and Tamah held their first vegetable stand in memory of Arek in 2021 and have kept going each year since. The community has also taken an active role in the project, purchasing produce and also donating some from their own gardens.

“It’s all take what you need, leave what you can. We don’t put a price on anything, we just say whatever you are able to donate and sometimes, if that’s nothing, then it’s nothing.”

At the end of each harvest season, the family takes all proceeds from the vegetable stand and reinvests them into their community — previously through Weekend Survival Kits and now through GLFB’s Weekend Kits for kids program, following the WSK program’s transfer to GLFB.

This choice to support programming that ensures all children have access to the food they need to thrive, even during non-school hours, also comes back to Arek.

“During COVID, the school was giving food out to all students to prevent it from going to waste [due to closures],” said Tamah. “Seeing how happy he was to get that food and take ownership of it made us realize there are so many kids and families that don’t have access to the privilege we do to get food. I couldn’t bear to think of another kid having to struggle to get the food they need.”

In addition to their annual donation of funds from the vegetable stand, Matt and Tamah organize a volunteer session each year for friends and family to pack Weekend Kits while celebrating and honoring Arek’s memory. This year they included a special treat with the kits they packed, Legos and Play-Doh — two of Arek’s favorite toys — for children receiving kits in his hometown of Mason.

During their 2024 volunteer session, Matt, Tamah and other friends and family of Arek packed 576 Weekend Kits.

Speaking about the yearly volunteer session, Tamah shared, “It has kept his spirit alive and gives people something they’re able to do — physically do. It’s a way for us to do something for our community and honor Arek in this positive, good-feeling way that anybody can be part of. Anybody can come here and pack Weekend Kits.”

As they support the fight against child hunger in mid-Michigan, Matt, Tamah and other friends and family of Arek continue to keep his fun-loving and big-hearted memory alive.

“I just want to continue remembering him as much as possible and sharing him with others, because he was such a cool kid,” said Tamah. “Grieving as a parent is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I have to imagine grieving as a kid is also hard to understand. I think having this to be a part of and remember your good friend is probably a huge part of their life that they’ll hopefully remember forever.”

The Gustafson family’s story is a powerful reminder of how the work we do is so much more than food. It provides dignity, hope, community and connection for our entire community — neighbors, volunteers, donors and staff alike.

“Food is such a big part of life. I hope that joy is shared with these kids and their families.”