Full backpacks means full bellies for students

Baeza Lakew slung a backpack over her shoulders so that it hung in front of her then proceeded to move from one pile of food items to the next laid out on a table April 25 at The Storehouse in Covington.

Baeza Lakew slung a backpack over her shoulders so that it hung in front of her then proceeded to move from one pile of food items to the next laid out on a table April 25 at The Storehouse in Covington.

Lakew, 9, was one of six Girl Scouts who met up at the food bank facility located behind Real Life Church to fill backpacks for students in need at Covington, Crestwood, Cedar Valley and Jenkins Creek elementary schools.

The packs were filled with applesauce, boxed juices, peanut butter cracker sandwiches, and other items. The packs are distributed at the four schools on Fridays then students return them empty on Mondays.

This program was started by the Covington Rotary, the brainchild of past president Kevin Holland, explained Carol Judd, the Rotarian who manages the project for the club.

“Kevin Holland, he had heard there was a program like this in Texas,” Judd said. “He said, ‘There’s this backpack program where the kids get food when they go home for the weekend.’ Historically speaking, kids on free and reduced lunch are a bit squirrely Monday and Tuesday, they settle down by Wednesday.”

But by the time the weekend rolls around and there’s not much food at home, the vicious cycle starts again, but the backpack food program is intended to alleviate that issue.

Judd said Rotarians approached the staff at Cedar Valley and Covington elementary schools to see if there was an interest.

“It is a blind thing,” Judd said they told the school staff members. “We’ll number the backpacks, you decide who needs them and pass them out. They said, ‘That sounds fabulous.’”

In the beginning, the Rotary club worked with the Maple Valley Food Bank as well as The Storehouse, which is supported by a consortium of churches in the area. Judd explained that both had facilities where they could pack and the staff at both food banks knew how to shop to get the most bang for Rotary’s buck. Money for the program has been raised at the club’s annual auction as the Fund-An-Item selection.

Judd said she learned about a similar program in Des Moines, asked the coordinators there what they give the kids to come up with the list.

“We want to make sure they have breakfast and lunch, assuming they’re having dinner with their parents,” Judd said. “The trick with the food is we’re feeding anything from a kindergartener to sixth grader so they have to be able to pop it open, eat it or heat it.”

Another element of the project was finding packers, Judd said.

“When we initially did this we wanted the community to embrace this, so, the people who come and fill the bags on Thursdays are Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, churches … we have no problem finding packers. It’s been a really cool domino effect of people calling and saying, ‘I want to do it.’ The community is getting involved and to me, that’s the beauty of the whole thing.”

There is a greater need right now at Covington and Cedar Valley, where more than 70 packs are distributed weekly during the school year, while between 15 and 20 are handed out at Crestwood and Jenkins Creek.

According to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s website, in May 2012 67.2 percent of students at Cedar Valley were on free or reduced lunch while that number was 52.4 percent at Covington Elementary, Crestwood was at 31 percent and Jenkins Creek was at 45.5 percent.

“The first year we did (Covington and Cedar Valley) and then we expanded to Crestwood and Jenkins Creek,” Judd said. “Then we’ve increased the quantity at the other two schools because they have a higher need we fill 75 bags at both of those schools but we could increase that and still not fill their need.”

Angela Stave, family and community engagement facilitator at Covington Elementary, said there are another dozen or so students there who could benefit from the weekly backpack full of food.

“It is a program for us that has grown each year that it’s been here,” Stave said. “Thanks to the Rotary, we’ve been able to add some families each year. Students and families are appreciative of it.”

Feedback from families and teachers at Covington Elementary has been nothing but positive, though, because it’s such an efficient program, Stave said, it flies under the radar of the community.

“I know for a fact when there are weeks we don’t get it and kids don’t have food over the weekend it’s harder for them to come back and learn when they’re hungry,” Stave said. “If they have food over the weekend they come back ready to learn on Monday morning. I’ve heard wonderful things from our staff, from our families. I have heard from a teacher or two that they notice attendance is higher on Fridays once the child gets the backpack, so, it’s an encouragement for them to be here and pick that up.”

Another positive element of the program is it has attracted helpers to the school who weren’t previously involved. There are parents who volunteer each Friday, Stave said, who sort the packs when they arrive then deliver them to the classrooms.

“These were parents who weren’t weekly volunteers before,” Stave said. “Because they knew it was a specific need at a specific time every week, they stepped up. It’s cool to see those families helping others.”

That volunteer spirit has spread to the staff, too. Once a month a team of teachers stuff the packs.

“I’ve seen that pool of teachers grow, as well, and some even bring their kids to help so their kids are helping other people,” Stave said. “This is something concrete, they know when it needs to be done and that helps them schedule it. For some of the volunteers it becomes a family affair, they bring their husbands, they bring their kids.”

Students see the weekly backpack pick up as a good thing.

“They’re excited to get it, they’re excited to have it to take home over the weekend,” Stave said. “That’s a positive behavior. Kids know we’re going beyond the basic academics to take care of them.”

When the program began, Judd said, the other goal was to simply get it rolling.

“Our really big picture is to pass this on to another organization,” Judd said. “We just wanted to start it and have someone else embrace it, but we’re not having any luck. What we need is the funding, the money. We’re getting an awful lot of money from our friends and family, but, we need to take it to the next level.”

For now, it’s rolling along, supported by community members, Rotarians and school staff members but most importantly, those full backpacks on Fridays lead to full bellies over the weekends for elementary students.

“Their attention is increased, their focus is increased, their grades increased,” Judd said.