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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

Faye Littrell clasped hands with other Backpack Buddies volunteers at Oakland United Methodist Church last Thursday and started off with a prayer.


The group was gathered to fill book bags for 21 elementary school students to take home over the weekend.

"We thank you for your Son, who taught us to feed the hungry," Littrell said during the prayer, as the volunteers in the church's basement Sunday school area kept their heads bowed.

After the prayer, the seven made quick work of roving along the tables laden with the consumables and collecting the supplies for the score of children at Oakland Elementary who get free and reduced lunches during the school week, but may face shortages at home on the weekends.

They pick up the single-serving size of Apple Jacks and other cereals, small boxes of raisins, packages of crackers and peanut butter, packets of cocoa, granola bars, oranges and more until the plastic baskets get full.

Then, it's over to another table to stuff the snacks into the backpacks.

The full bags hold about eight to 10 pounds of food and cost about $10 each to put together.

Soon, the volunteers have loaded two vehicles to take the supplies across Pipers Gap Road to guidance counselor Kim Reitzel's door next to the cafeteria.

Here, the students will sling the bags over their shoulders to take home on Friday and enjoy over the weekend.

Littrell read about a similar Backpack Buddies effort at Galax Elementary School and volunteered there for a while.

She knew there was also a great need for such a program at Oakland, where 69 percent of the student population receive free and reduced lunch assistance.

"We started small to see how it would be received," she explained. "We would have probably expanded more if we hadn't had such difficult weather this winter.

"We feel like we can get the donations and the help if the need is there."

Everybody that Littrell has approached has come to the effort's aid, including the organizers of the Galax program, who told her everything they knew; the local grocer who supplies the foods at his cost; community churches and organizations and individuals.

Besides the Methodist church, others participating include Elkhorn Baptist Church, Blue Ridge Chapel Church, Oakland Ruritan Club and Twin County Antique Automobile Club.

Littrell singled out Rhonda Todd's special contribution. Todd is a pianist who made and sold a recording of spiritual songs, with half of the proceeds donated to benefit Backpack Buddies and half to her church's building fund.

Barbara Baxley also provided organizational assistance.

Educators selected children for the program, and it started with 16 on Jan. 8.

It has grown slowly, hampered by the many snow days that students have missed.

"I think the children are really excited to get this," Littrell said. "I think it makes them feel special that they have a pack of food that's just for them."

Some of the children might not stay at the same place they do during the week, but they can take the bags with them wherever they might go, like camping, Littrell said.

They children might be sharing their treats with a little brother or sister at home, too.

Family members also consider the food a blessing, from the reaction she's heard.

Providing these healthy items can have significant impacts on these children's lives.

"The whole idea about the program is children who have nutritional meals can pay attention, have better behavior and perform better academically," Littrell said.

Other places with the Blessings of America food program have seen just that effect on studies, she added.

The extra food is a blessing for the families, Reitzel said. It's helped them through the tough times that so many are experiencing right now.

Every week, a boy in the program makes sure that Reitzel knows right where he put his bag, so it can be filled again.

"It's been a wonderful program," the counselor said. "Faye, this is all her idea. We were so thankful she chose our school to help."

"I just think it's nice that there's people who care about other people," Littrell said.