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Backpack Buddies

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By April Wright, Reporter

Friends Jacquie Roberts, Alison Bolen and Stephannie Dees share a common goal: to feed every hungry child in the Galax community.

Roberts was touched by the story about Backpack Buddies she saw a few months ago on the “Today Show,” as it showed how communities are coming together to help battle hunger in children.

That’s when she called Bolen, a member of Galax Presbyterian Church, who immediately spread the word.

By Sept. 18, children at Galax Elementary received backpacks packed with food for the weekend for the first time — through Backpack Buddies, a program of Galax Presbyterian.

Backpack Buddies is a new national community-based program with about 150 organizations in the country, designed to provide nutritious non-perishable meals and healthy snacks to children in need.

Better test scores, improved reading skills, positive behavior, improved health and increased attendance have all been attributed to success of the program.

Backpack Buddies was started by Kayla Brown, a teacher fresh out of school, who thought that a child may have been acting disruptive due to hunger.

Brown went to her church and asked for aid to buy food for children, which led to starting Backpack Buddies in fall 2006.

“Starting the program in Galax was word of mouth, and at the time, [Galax Presbyterian Church] wanted to start a new program to help the community,” Bolen said.

She immediately began applying for grants to start Backpack Buddies in Galax. “And hunger is a need that needs to be met.”

Now a group of volunteers, including Bolen, Roberts and Dees, meet each Friday at the church and stuff backpacks full of kid-friendly meals and snacks.

Children at Galax Elementary School who are signed up for the program receive a backpack filled with food — five pop-top meals, water, fresh fruit, healthy snacks, peanut butter, crackers, juice and cereal and a suggested menu — to help carry them through the weekend. Backpacks are returned on Monday and cleaned to start the process over on Friday.

“It’s taking community support,” Roberts said. “It’s not just one person or two that’s making this program work. It’s a community effort.”

At the beginning of the school year, letters in English and Spanish were sent home with students to explain the program. Sixty-five children have signed up, and the number keeps growing.

“When I talked to [Galax Elementary Principal] Mr. Stuart, he said he knew of children that could use these backpacks now,” Roberts said during the organizational meeting about a month ago.

Galax Presbyterian received a grant of $5,500 from the Abingdon Presbytery— just enough seed money to get the program started.

“It sounds like a lot of money, but with 65 kids, at $10 a backpack, that will only last a few weeks,” Roberts said.

Ongoing funding is needed to ensure that all 65 children are fed throughout the 37 weeks of school. Organizers figured that each bag is filled with $10.02 worth of food.

Though donations have been coming in steadily and donors have been gracious, it takes $24,050 to fill each backpack with food and snacks during the school year.

Volunteers have been passing out fliers explaining that individuals can send donations or sponsor a child for $370 for the entire school year.

Bolen said donations can be made on behalf of a child in need, and placed in honor or memory of loved ones.

So far, at least 25 volunteers help pack the bags. The bags were donated by Blessings In A Backpack, a Kentucky organization dedicated to feeding children.

Willing Partners food bank in Galax donated boxes of food. And sponsors, businesses and local churches are stepping up to help, including groceries.

“This is a program that will benefit the Galax community and students,” said Galax Superintendent Bill Sturgill, of why he decided to support the program. “It’s led by a group of volunteers and by great individuals, and I felt we could make this work.”

“It’s been tremendous,” said Galax Elementary Principal Brian Stuart. “We hope it helps out someway. We’re really excited about it.”

Depending on the age of the participating child, grade pre-K children’s backpacks are filled with 6 pounds of food and fourth graders receive 10 pounds of food.

And it’s all confidential. When backpacks are delivered before students head for home on Friday, counselors and teachers act as liaisons.

Students keep the same color-coded backpack, identified to the volunteers only by initials, to help keep track of those with food allergies.

Organizers sought advice from others who began the program at Snowville Elementary School in Hiwassee, and hope to help other communities get programs started.

“This has been an amazing ride,” Bolen said. “This has come from God. It may have been more financially intelligent to wait, but we just couldn’t. God asked us to do it, and we’re just the messengers, but it will take the community to make it happen.”

All proceeds from donations benefit Backpack Buddies. Donations are tax deductible.

To volunteer or make a donation, call 236-3147. Or send checks payable to Galax Presbyterian Church c/o Backpack Buddies Program, to the church at P.O. Box 2, Galax, Va. 24333.

Volunteers meet at Galax Presbyterian’s Warrick Hall each Friday at noon. Organizers will meet at the Galax Public Library at noon Oct. 7 to discuss details of Backpack Buddies.