Backpack Programs Fight Childhood Hunger in Southeast Georgia
February 21, 2013 - When children stream out of school on a Friday, the contents of their backpacks are usually the least of their concerns. But in a growing number of counties in southeast Georgia, inside those bags might be the only food some children eat until they return to school.
At a conference in 2009, Charla Nail, executive director of institutional advancement for Southeastern Technical College, attended a workshop about a program in Indiana called Boomerang Backpacks. The program, which garnered national attention, struck a chord with Nail.
“[The program founder] gave statistics and stated there were many studies conducted that showed that when some kids leave for home on Friday, they may not eat again until they return to school Monday morning,” said Nail. “The thought of that broke my heart.”
Nail returned to Southeastern Tech, but didn’t forget the backpack program. Before long, similar programs sprang up in Statesboro and Savannah, and Nail knew it was time to act locally.
As it turned out, a large percentage of children in her home county, Tattnall, were receiving free or reduced lunches, so Nail approached the county’s superintendent with a proposal. They came to an agreement and modeled a new program after Statesboro’s Backpack Buddies.
This is how it works: a local church partners with a school, the church provides the food, packs the backpacks, delivers them to the school on Friday and picks them up each Monday to be refilled. Eligible students are determined not just by free/reduced lunch eligibility, but by teacher referral. Letters are then sent home with those students, asking for the parents’ permission to provide the backpacks.
The Reidsville Elementary program kicked off in March 2010, and the idea caught hold—a Glennville church sponsored Glennville Elementary, and Collins Elementary found a partner in a Cobbtown church. Today, every elementary school in Tattnall sends children home with blue backpacks.
“STC agreed to provide the drawstring backpacks for the churches and schools,” said Nail. “We average about 40 backpacks per school.”
It was at this point that a number of fortuitous coincidences led to the beginnings of a program in Emanuel County.
“It started with me, Angel Lane and Courtney Wells,” said Niamh Matthews. “We had heard about these programs and we knew there wasn’t one here, and we knew it needed to be here. We just didn’t know how to get it started.”
The three women had a mission, but no institutional partnership. Then, Lane overheard Anna Johnson, a teacher and FCCLA advisor at Emanuel County Institute (ECI), mention to someone that she had a pair of students looking to address childhood hunger in a project.
“We would not have talked about this otherwise,” said Lane. “It was almost handed to us.”
After connecting with ECI and raising a small amount of funds on their own, the fledgling program, now named Weekend Blessings, could either buy food and no backpacks, or vice versa. Earlier, Matthews had consulted Nail about starting a program, so she contacted her again.
“I emailed Mrs. Nail, asking how we would get bags, and she told us, ‘Come by Southeastern Tech and pick up the bags,’” said Matthews.
After that, the ball was rolling. Sponsorships ($90 per child per year) and donations came in. Johnson’s students, Nicollette Newton and Anna Rountree, crafted ornaments and gifts to sell for the program and netted over $400.
The ECI group then approached their superintendent about the program, who informed them of the Mill Creek Foundation grant, which could have potentially injected thousands of dollars into the project.
“Anna and Nicholette wrote that grant, then we found out about a Wal-Mart grant and applied for that as well,” said Johnson. “We got both.”
The program now sends out a total of 68 backpacks in Twin City, 58 of which go to Twin City Elementary, where the effect of the backpacks isn’t just better health but, in some cases, better academics.
“We’ve had several whose grades, attendance and behavior have improved,” said Lane. “And at this point, we’re feeding 58 kids and there are only 573 kids at Twin City Elementary, so that’s 10 percent.”
But when the women of Weekend Blessings are packing food, cleaning backpacks or distributing them, they’re not thinking of the numbers.
“That’s the part we didn’t anticipate,” said Matthews. “The program is better than we thought it would be, but the emotions that come with it can be difficult. When we started, it was just, ‘OK, there are hungry kids, get money, get food, get it to them, then you can sleep at night.’ But now on the weekends you’re thinking, ‘I hope they got it. Did they like it? Did anyone tuck them in? It’s kind of cold tonight.’”
“It’s made me grow as a person,” said Rountree. “I realize how lucky I actually am, that I have food and a warm place to sleep at night.”
Backpack programs continue to spread. In early February, Emanuel County Family Connection reached out to Nail about starting a backpack program in Swainsboro. Nail downplays the role of the college in these programs, but echoes the sentiments she heard six years ago.
“STC plays a very small role in a huge ministry to these children in need, so that hopefully no child in Emanuel, Tattnall, Toombs, Montgomery, Candler, Jenkins, Johnson and Treutlen county will have to go to bed hungry,” said Nail.
For more information on Weekend Blessings, visit facebook.com/weekendblessings2012. For more on Southeastern Tech, call 912-538-3100 or 478-289-2200 or visit www.southeasterntech.edu.