By Kathryn Millhorn
As we brace ourselves for a season of hectic overindulgence, let’s not forget our friends and neighbors in need, especially homeless children among us whose voice may not be heard. NoKidHungry.org reports that 16 million kids in the U.S. struggle with hunger and “3 out of 4 public school teachers say that students regularly come to school hungry. 81% say it happens at least once a week.”
During the school year, free and reduced breakfast and lunch options provide meals for 37% of Thurston County’s nearly 40,000 public school students. But what happens over the weekend, holidays, or summer vacation? That’s where the volunteers of Lacey’s Homeless Backpacks step in. For only $8 a bag, they’ll provide homeless youth with food for the weekend, thanks to generous donations, partnerships with small businesses, and caring organizations like the Thurston County Food Bank.
Kelly Wilson is one of Homeless Backpacks’ founding board members and has been Program Chair since the beginning. She estimates that over the past nine years they’ve had almost a thousand volunteers from churches, sports teams, dance troupes, the state employees Combined Fund Drive, and civic groups like local Rotary, Lions Club, Boy and Girl Scouts.
From feeding 200 students a year in the beginning, they peaked at more than 500. But with Grays Harbor and Mason County recently setting up similar organizations of their own, they ended the 2014-2015 school year helping 400 students and are already at 321 for the new 2015-2016 school year.
The process is entirely anonymous for the Homeless Backpacks volunteers. They receive only numbers of bags needed from school counselors. These caring folks work closely with teachers to identify students in need. After almost a decade of feeding the hungry, Wilson’s says she’s “unsure if hunger is growing or counselors are simply doing a better job identifying homeless kids.”
In Thurston County, elementary students needing this extra assistance are aided by the Thurston County Food Bank while Homeless Backpacks cares for teenagers in need. But for the rural areas of Rochester, Tenino, Yelm, and Rainier, Homeless Backpacks assists any students needing their help.
“We do the best we can with the circumstances we have,” explains Wilson. With that in mind, most backpacks contain foods that are easy to carry, store, heat, and eat. This may include chili, tuna fish, macaroni and cheese, ravioli, instant oatmeal, granola bars, juice, shelf-safe milk, applesauce, and mixed fruit cups.
Because of their pledge towards anonymity, it’s rare to receive a thank you. But, says Wilson, “once in a while we receive a card and it’s like Christmas for us!” They also invite former students to speak at their fundraising events and it becomes a high point of everyone’s evening.
Online donations are always welcome and groups are encouraged to select an item from their What We Need list and host a drive for that specific food. Offices have been known to hold workplace chili or tuna drives, which makes it easier for both donors and Homeless Backpacks volunteers.
Community members interested in helping or becoming a volunteer can learn more by attending their upcoming Bountiful Harvest event on Saturday, November 14 at 6:00 p.m. Promising “great opportunities to get those perfect gifts for your loved ones and enjoy an amazing dinner while you are at it” the evening includes a catered meal donated by the generous staff at the Lucky Eagle Casino and Hotel as well as live and silent auctions, raffles, and a delicious dessert dash. Purchase tickets in advance online or by calling the Homeless BackPacks staff at 360-628-8631.
Follow Homeless Backpacks on Facebook to view Bountiful Harvest auction items, recent volunteer activity, and current lists of most-needed items. Their online events page or volunteer portal provide ways to help, directly or indirectly.
Educators report that “With breakfast, educators see a profound change for the better: 73% see kids paying better attention in class, 53% see improved attendance, 48% see fewer disciplinary problems.” Imagine what an entire weekend’s worth of food can do for a hungry teenager and their scholastic success.
Contact Kelly Wilson with any questions about Bountiful Harvest or Homeless Backpacks. She’s always willing to suggest needed ways to help or answer questions about this community treasure.