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Backpack Buddies

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By April Wright, Reporter

The number of Galax students participating in Backpack Buddies rose from 65 in September to 135 this month, and the number keeps growing, said Alison Bolen, an organizer of the program.

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Bolen and friends Jacquie Roberts and Stepahannie Dees came together to start up the program to help feed every hungry child in the community. Roberts, Dees and Bolen, along with a slew of volunteers fill backpacks with kid-friendly snacks and meals each Friday at Galax Presbyterian Church, where Bolen is a member, to send home with children in need.

Backpack Buddies is a 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.

On Fridays, volunteers stuff backpacks full of meals to handout to children in need and to carry them through the weekend. Students return the backpacks to school on Monday, and it starts all over again.

The confidential program — with counselors and teachers acting as liaisons — was started on Sept. 18 to assist students at Galax Elementary School, but it has now been extended to middle and high school students. Permission forms were sent home with every student to explain the program. So far, 21 students at GMS, 27 at GHS and 87 at GES have signed up.

Each week, one or two students sign up for the program, according to GES Principal Brian Stuart.

“This program is going fantastic,” said Stuart. “The kids are having a ball coming in to pick up their backpacks, with a smile on their faces, knowing their going to get fresh food for the weekend.”

Bolen said after the program started at GES, high school Principal Bill Sutherland called organizers and told them he had a few students in mind that could use the assistance over the weekends. Soon after, organizers got started with packing backpacks for middle and high school students.

“The number of students jumped 60 students in one week,” said Bolen. “But the community has been very generous. We have enough money to pay through February, and each week we get in new contributions.”

Galax Superintendent Bill Sturgill noted that 54 percent of students at Galax city schools receive free or reduced lunch. And at GES alone, that figure is 59 percent; at GMS, 55 percent and at GHS, 47 percent.

With at least 30 that come to help each week, even the number of volunteers has increased. A high school class comes to help pack backs, along with three teachers, every Friday.

Bolen said Backpack Buddies wouldn't be where it is today if it weren't for volunteers. Backpack Buddies has served students for 14 weeks.

“We appreciate the volunteers being so supportive,” she said. “They've really helped get the program off the ground.”

Joan Hooven, special education teacher at GHS, brings her students to help out.

“We knew that the need was there, and it's become one of our favorite activities,” said Hooven, of why she and her students volunteer.

However, to feed 135 students each week it is going to cost $1,350, or $33,750, for the remainder of the school year. Each bag contains about $10.02 worth of healthy snacks and meals.

There is enough funding allocated to last through January, but Bolen said ongoing funding is needed, and she encourages people to sponsor a child or make a donation in honor or in memory of someone.

“We've completely gone on faith, and it has worked,” said Bolen. “We had no idea of how many students that were going to sign up, but we believed we could do it.”

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

So far, 17 children, at $370 each, are being sponsored for the school year, and $21,985 in donations has been received, including a $5,500 grant from the Abingdon Presbytery.

Bolen said she and other organizers are exploring grant opportunities and will join the Southwestern Virginia Second Harvest Food Bank. The food bank serves, at low costs, hungry people — children, adults, the elderly and the less fortunate — by collaborating with nonprofit and faith-based food distribution agencies throughout its 26-county service area.

Becoming an agency under Second Harvest in January would allow Backpack Buddies organizers to shop for food at 19 cents a pound.

“We're just excited about becoming a part of the agency,” said Roberts. “It's a true blessing.”

And teachers at Galax schools had a dress-down Friday, donating $5 for each teacher who wore jeans. This event raised $250 for the program.

“These backpacks are going home every Friday and coming back every Monday. That's a sign that this program is working and that it is a need in this community,” said Bolen.

Teachers are just thankful for the program, said Bolen. One teacher told Bolen she is seeing a surge of activity in students since the program started.

The event is sponsored by Galax Presbyterian Church; Blessings In A Backpack, which donated several backpacks; Cornerstone Community Church, in which members provided 20 backpacks; Oldtown Market; First Baptist Church; Mount Vale United Methodist Church; Willing Partners food bank; Abingdon Presbytery; volunteers and individual donations.

Here's how you can help

To volunteer, backpacks are filled every Friday from 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. at Galax Presbyterian Church, Warrick Hall. To make a donation, make checks payable to Galax Presbyterian Church c/o Backpack Buddies Program. Mail checks to Galax Presbyterian Church, Attn: Backpack Buddies, P.O. Box 2, Galax, Va. 24333.