The backpack program, started over two years ago by First United Methodist Church to help feed homeless students for the weekend, is growing again.
Started with high school students in April 2012, it expanded to middle schoolers in February 2013, and beginning this school year, it is aiming to help feed homeless grade school students also.
Glenis Schreffler of First United Methodist said the program has been such a success, “it has a life of its own. We haven’t been told no for anything yet. Everything we’ve asked for has been provided…it’s almost scary. Sometimes I want to say, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa! Slow down!’ but I realize I’m not in charge here, I’m just the conductor.”
When the middle school level was added, the Backpack group decided to feed their siblings also. “It didn’t make any sense to feed one junior high student if there were three little kids at home,” Schreffler said.
“The counselors at the middle school were great,” she said. If a backpack was heavy because it had food for numerous kids – the biggest had food for six — the counselors would deliver it to the home. They delivered four to six backpacks each Friday, “That’s how important it is for these kids to have food over the weekend,” she said.
Schreffler said the kids the program is feeding are not homeless in the sense that they are living in a car or tent, but rather they are sharing homes with others.
For that reason, the backpack program purposely sends enough food for the child to share with the family they’re living with.
Once the siblings were added, “we said, ‘alright, we can do this, we can bring on the elementaries.’ That way each child gets their own backpack and their own food.”
The program is fully anonymous and the church does not have the names of any kids, she said. Each child is assigned a number, and if they have siblings, they are noted as well.
Last year, only five high school students participated, but 22 middle school children did, and another 25 siblings were fed as well. In all, about 50 kids were being served every week.
Parents must give the OK for their children to receive the backpacks, which are returned every Monday to be filled again for Friday pickup.
Schreffler said, “We’ve actually done this program backwards. I haven’t ever read about people feeding high school kids, its usually middle school, or grade school kids. But it was a good thing, we didn’t know what we were doing and it was the least amount of kids (at the high school level).”
The church just started with the high school because it is right next door, she said.
The group is very clear about what they can and can’t do. “I know we had some babies, but we’re not equipped to feed babies. We don’t have baby food and we’re not going to worry about those kids. Hopefully those kids are on WIC and they’re going to be provided for that way.”
Others have wondered about feeding the kids during summer, but again, “No, this is a weekend, school backpack feeding program.”
There would be no way to get a hold of kids during the summer.
She said the biggest dilemma is figuring out who the homeless kids are. “It’s nobody’s fault — I know. I’ve worked at the school for 20 years.”
“The schools are just busy. It’s the most chaotic time at the beginning of the year, so I’ve tried not to bug them too much, but I do a little anyway.”
Even though the actual numbers aren’t nailed down yet, the first backpacks of the year will go out today, Friday, Sept. 12. “We’re not going to know the numbers for a few more weeks. We’re going to start with what we know. I suspect we’ll just keep adding and adding, probably into October.”
Backpacks usually include bread, peanut butter and other kid-friendly food, ranging from cheese sticks to fruits and veggies.
Jam and cheese sticks are tough to get, though, because they’re expensive.
A number of area churches have donated food to the backpack program, she said. “They’re very dedicated, they truly believe that we are fulfilling a necessary need.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is doing a food drive, and part of the proceeds will be given to the backpack program.
Donations of cash or food can be dropped off at First United Methodist Church, 305 E.11th St., from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. If people are more comfortable giving money directly to the Community Action Program, where the program buys some of its food, that is also an option.
Donations to CAP, which is at 312 E. 4th St. should include the notation that they are for the backpack program.
Donations of money aren’t always used for food, she said. “If we don’t get a donation of more usable backpacks, we’re going to have to buy some.”
After the Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul finish their own backpack program, where it provides backpacks to school kids filled with school supplies, any leftover backpacks will be given to the church, Schreffler said.