Backpack project takes teamwork
Deborah Buckhalter / Jackson County Floridan | Posted: Saturday, January 9, 2016 7:00 am
The Backpacks for Kids movement in Jackson County started four years ago, during the Christmas season of 2011. In a whirlwind of activity, 40 backpacks of food were sent home with children to cover the 17 days of their holiday break from school. It helped fill two big gaps that the holiday created in their lives on each of those weekdays: The breakfasts and lunches they would be without because school was not open. It was also enough to stretch into their evening meals.
Since then, the program has been growing thanks to a responsive community, said founder MaryNell Griffin. It started with a core of four volunteers and it covered only the single 17-day period. It now covers many, many more days a year and sometimes draws 30 helpers to pack days, when the bags are loaded by the hundreds and sent to schools all across Jackson County for distribution to youngsters identified as being in need of the additional food at home on weekends and during holiday periods and all summer when school is out of session.
These days, the Backpack program reaches more than 250 children, with two bags going to each child to cover a two-week period. Griffin said statistics indicate there could be another 150 children not yet identified who need help.
The packing chores are carried out assembly-line fashion, and all helpers in the task are volunteers who come from all walks life, and from all generations. Elders work alongside pint-sized helpers who might still be in first grade. Youth groups like local FFA and 4-H groups lend a hand, churches send members of their congregations, other organizations and/or businesses help, and individuals inspired for their own reasons join in on the project. It usually takes a couple of rounds to compete a two-week pack, and they sometimes make a game of beating their times. On Friday, Jan. 8, they set a new record by packing 260 bags in just 28 minutes. Jennifer Tillman spurred the team on as she counted down the last few minutes, shouting like an aggressive sideline coach as the clock ticked away. She sounded fierce, but her face was lit with a big smile. She said her approach was just for fun, a way to spark energy for the last push.
In another room, a different crew of volunteers busily sorted freshly-arriving canned and dry goods so that those would be ready for packing when the time came.
The food came from multiple sources, she said, including individual community members, businesses, churches and organizations across the county. Cash donations also come from those sources, she said, and are used by Griffin in agreements she has that help multiply the buying power of a dollar. For food that might cost $15-20, she might pay $5, instead, because of those arrangements.
Griffin said the Backpack team is getting ready for a February project that will put more dollars in the till.
Timed for Valentine’s Day, that effort involves dipping strawberries in chocolate and packaging them into gift boxes that buyers can purchase for their loved ones. The packages will cost $20 and will have about 20 strawberries, half dipped in white chocolate and half dipped in dark chocolate.
The money raised will go exclusively toward the purchase of food for the backpacks, as does every single dollar that the team can get its hands on. Most of the packs used today are recyclable bags, instead of the traditional backpacks initially used when the program began. The switch was necessary, Griffin said, because the backpacks are more expensive and didn’t always make it back to school for reloading. Businesses and individuals donate some of the bags, and the team actually makes some, too, out of old clean t-shirts donated by friends of the cause. Team members cut away the garments’ sleeves and open a larger hole around the neck, then turn the t-shirt inside out. The cuts made create a strap the children use to carry their bags home. Griffin said there’s always a need for donated bags and shirts (with no holes or stains), as hundreds are needed each year.
Griffin said she’d like to see community awareness of the backpack program expand this year, and she’s willing to talk with any group that wants her to present information.
She said educators are letting her know that the program is making a difference. Grades and school attendance are improving among the children helped, they tell her, and the food is feeding a spirit of hope in their lives.