Reilly Chicken Tenders
Kerriann would have never guessed she’d be a chicken lady. Now she advocates for and teaches her kids about them.
When I was in elementary school, I believe second or third grade, one of my friends brought his pet snake to show and tell. The next week, I tried to bring my favorite hen. The teachers turned me away, and had my mom take her back home. Their reason? “Chickens are dirty and they carry diseases.” I didn’t understand. I never knew my chickens to be overly dirty, and I didn’t think they carried diseases. I was devastated. I loved chickens as a kid even more than I do now. It was an obsession.
A second grade ESL teacher in Texas recently became my childhood hero. Last spring at Margaret Reilly Elementary School, Kerriann Duffy overheard a couple of staff members deciding what to do with an old incubator that they had stumbled across while cleaning out a storage shed on campus. She offered to take the machine and asked if anyone minded her incubating a few eggs. She knew the incubator could hatch chicks and she wanted to try it for the kids in her class.
Kerriann taught herself everything she could find on the internet about hatching eggs and chicks, and busily began incubating a set of 24 eggs. As hatch day rolled around the anticipation was high amongst the kids. And?
It was a huge learning curve for Kerriann. Her class was devastated; it was a difficult lesson for the 2nd graders. She did her best to explain to the kids that it was power greater than her, and all they could do was learn from the experience and try their best next time. After assessing what she learned from her first attempt, Kerriann set up another batch of eggs. This time they hatched six chicks!
As with any new chicken owner, there was still so much to learn. Kerriann and her class lost two chicks within the first week, but the remaining four grew into handsome, healthy roosters. Losing the chicks was hard on the kids too, and it became another important lesson for them. The chicks lived in the classroom for 10 weeks while they learned as a group how to raise chickens and decided what to do with them. Kerriann laughed as she was telling me this and said, “It was a backwards plan. ‘We have an incubator! Let’s incubate eggs. Now we have chicks! Let’s learn about chicks.’”
They lost two of the roosters over the summer to heat exposure and had to rehome the other two. Meanwhile, Kerriann ran across a lady selling off some of her flock and bought five hens for the campus chicken coop.
The chickens moved into an old goat shed the abandoned 4-H program owned at one point, and Kerriann got the PTA involved with the girls to help create the “Donor Coop Project,” where they raised and donated money toward a real chicken coop. At this time Kerriann was driving to the school every morning to let the girls out of the shed and back again every evening to put them up for the night. It wasn’t the most sustainable setup, but it was a start.
Over the summer Kerriann started another batch of eggs. The day before they eggs were supposed to hatch, the school turned the power off in the classrooms for a remodeling project. She brought them home with her, and four chicks hatched from the clutch. The chicks lived in the kitchen of her apartment for a time. She ended up with another two males and two females.
Kerriann, her coworkers, PTA team, and class stumbled though their first year of raising chickens. They recently celebrated their “One year ‘Chickenversarry.’” They added a few more hens from a few places, and today they have a total of nine girls. Seven lay and two are retired, but the girls that lay give the class a good opportunity to sell eggs.
When I spoke to Kerriann, I was moved by her genuine passion and excitement that she brings into her work. She really went the extra mile for her kids. She teaches her kids about something bigger than school, and she loves seeing her kids get so excited to see the girls. “They get more excited to see the chickens than they get for recess,” she confided.
The school has an after-hours program that is far more lenient with the teachers about that to teach. Kerriann runs one of the classes, and she is happy to bring gardening and farming to the kids. They have an incredibly unique chance to run the hens like a business. The kids tally the eggs per day and sell them. They’ve made their first $20 off the hens. Kerriann is no longer paying for the upkeep out of her own pocket now that the PTA is helping fund them, but her goal is to have the hens pay for themselves.
The kids also have pumpkins growing. The hens, at one point, ate some pumpkin snacks. They processed the seeds through their digestive systems and now, come spring, the seedlings are sprouting naturally. Kerriann uses real-life examples as teaching opportunities and frequently helps the kids learn about life with the help of the hens.
When I asked Kerriann about her thoughts on her crazy journey, she said she never really planned for any of it; it just happened. Chickens are a first for her, and she has no other livestock experience to speak of. Being a native Californian, she told me, “My most conclusive experience with livestock prior to this involved driving across the freeway and looking at the cows in the field.” When she moved to Texas nine years ago, she got a job at the school. The school was really special to her because it was her daughter’s first school. The school is really special to everyone else because they allow amazing programs like Kerriann’s to run.
Kerriann went from not giving chickens more than a passing thought as she bought meat from the supermarket to becoming more conscientious about where her food comes from and the animal behind it. She never knew chickens were so curious, affectionate, and sweet. “This is just the start. I love bringing new things to my kids. I was considering bringing in rabbits or even goats in the future.”
The parents are all very supportive. Kerriann is known as the teacher/chicken lady. They recently built the chicken run, and now that the coop and run is 100 percent enclosed and free from predators, Kerriann no longer has to shut the hens in at night.
Kerriann did so much in a year’s time. She brought life into existence by saving an old incubator, she kindled a spark in her own soul, but also in the next generation’s. She learned and taught and spear-headed an amazing new program. I inquired as to what this program was named, if anything. It has many names, some them quite silly as if it were named by, well, elementary school kids. My favorite? “Reilly Chicken Tenders.” The chickens have equally awesome names: Pigeon, Number 1, Number 2, October, Red, Four-Piece, Goldy, Nugget, and Frosty. The ladies instill passion into the next generation of chicken lovers.
Originally published in the June/July 2019 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.