Backpack Buddies making a difference

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Program aids hungry kids at Heath Springs Elementary

By Greg Summers

HEATH SPRINGS – Jesus’ admonition to Peter in John 21 to feed his lambs can be interpreted in any number of ways.


Six churches – St. Luke United Methodist, Salem United Methodist, Flint Ridge Baptist, Fork Hill Baptist, Oakhurst Baptist and Rich Hill Baptist  – are doing just that.

In a somewhat revolutionary pilot program that has the full blessing of the Lancaster County School District, the six churches have united forces to make sure that none of the students at Heath Springs Elementary School go hungry over the weekends during the school year.

Known as Backpack Buddies, the program is a joint effort designed to furnish public school students from low income families with supplemental food.

Each week since January, 98 of the 400-plus students who receive subsidized school meals have taken home a backpack filled with enough child-friendly, nutritious food for seven meals. They pick up their insulated, color-coded by grade lunch bags on Friday afternoons at the end of the school day and then return them to school on Monday morning.  

“It was set up to anonymous as possible,” said the Rev. Kyle Randle, pastor at St. Luke United Methodist Church. “We don’t know who any of the kids are and part of the reason it was designed as a backpack was so that it doesn’t stand out as much.”

Randle said the idea for starting Backpack Buddies came from a similar project within the Charleston County School District. Randle brought it before the church’s outreach committee in August 2008.  

Randle said the church then discussed the matter with Lancaster County School District Superintendent Dr. Gene Moore.

After Moore thoroughly researched Backpack Buddies, he gave St. Luke the green light to start it in January.

“It’s gone extremely well, too,” Moore said. “The teachers have been very positive about it and it’s turned out to be quite beneficial for students. We really appreciate the support of these six churches who joined together for Backpack Buddies. It’s really making a difference.” 

Genie Bowers, a member of the St. Luke United Methodist Church outreach committee, said the only stipulation Moore ask for was keep the teachers out of it, which volunteers have done.

“They (teachers) are there to teach,” Bowers said.

All the food comes from donations. Bowers said the operational cost of Backpack averages about $400 per week.

“Food isn’t cheap and we depend on the generosity of our church members,” Bowers said. “Early on, we realized the need was much greater than we thought and we were wondering how we were going to do this.”

That’s when the other churches joined in. While the Backpack Buddies use a room at Salem United Methodist Church (the closest church to the school), each church has volunteers to pack the lunch bags and return them to Heath Springs Elementary.

“It doesn’t cure all the ills, but it helps with their attentiveness in the classroom,” Randle said.

“Some of these are parents who have never had to ask for help before,” Bowers said. “They’ve exhausted their savings and don’t have anywhere else to turn. When you see and hear the responses of these kids when they get their bags, it warms your heart.”

Priscilla Bowers of Salem United Methodist Church said children light up when they get their weekend bags each Friday.

“It’s something they look forward to as much as we do,” she said. “This has been a community effort that’s been a blessing to everybody. It’s been a lot of work, but’s it’s been a good kind of work.”

Teachers’ reaction

Heath Springs Elementary School Principal Sheri Watson said Backpack Buddies is one of those programs that make administrators pinch themselves. It’s set up in such a way that it doesn’t interfere with the school day and there have been no complaints.

“What these churches have done is nothing short of phenomenal,” Watson said. “When you have a staff of 52, you think there might be one naysayer in the bunch, but there hasn’t been. There hasn’t been a single complaint.”

Watson attributes the success of Backpack Buddies to approaching it from a devil’s advocate standpoint. She said every potential problem was brainstormed and all the questions were answered before it ever started. 

“We worked out as many of the kinks as we could before we got started,” Priscilla Bowers said. “After the kids figured it out, it was smooth sailing.”

However, she admits making it “hands-off” for the Heath Springs Elementary staff  was hard at first.

“Educators have a tendency to get personally involved in everything. It’s just our nature,” Watson said. “But this is one of those cases where we steered clear. We said it will work if we let it.”   

Randle said he hopes other churches consider picking up the mantle to help the elementary schools in their respective communities in a similar fashion during the 2009-10 school year.

“I feel like the need will be even greater because of the economy,” Randle said.  “This isn’t a religious thing, it’s about meeting a need. If it makes the difference in one child’s life, it’s worth it.”

About Backpack Buddies

Texas teacher Kayla Brown came up with the idea for Backpack Buddies after seeing a hungry kindergartner licking his plate clean in the school cafeteria one day. At first Brown thought the youngster was goofing off, trying to make his classmates laugh, but she quickly learned that wasn’t the case.

The student said he was hungry and that his father had disappeared, leaving his family with no food or money. Brown promptly went to her church for help. Then when Brown went to work for the Bowie, Texas, school district, she noticed a higher proportion of children living in poverty. She said her students – most of whom received subsidized breakfasts and lunches – were particularly irritable on Monday mornings.

After reviewing test scores, poverty levels and behavior patterns, Brown said it all added it up: Chances were that many of these children were simply hungry. She went to her new pastor and got her new church moving to supplement their meals. Today, volunteers there quietly pack up food for about 170 children every weekend.

The result has been astounding. The standardized test scores of students enrolled at Bowie Elementary School have steadily increased. Some have seen test scores improve as much as 20 percent.