May 01, 2013 - By Meg Peters
Review Staff Writer
One in five children in Lake Orion does not receive enough to eat in a typical weekend.
"They can't learn if they're hungry," said Jennifer Goethals, principle of Blanche Sims Elementary, talking about Mondays.
Some students start the week after not having eaten since Friday's hot lunch at school
After receiving numerous calls from families asking how to feed their children over the weekend, Goethals made a move. She contacted the nationwide charity Blessings in a Backpack, which had finally arrived to Lake Orion.
The two elementary schools with the highest percentage of kids using the free/reduced lunch program participate in the program. But volunteers hope at some point all children in the Lake Orion district who need help will receive it.
Pine Tree Elementary and Blanche Sims both were the first to qualify.
It began when educators noticed their students were just often hungry, and started bringing granola bars to school for them.
"We spend a lot of our own money on snacks. Families just don't have the resources to spend a couple dollars a day on snacks," she said.
So teachers began sporting a bucket of snacks in the classrooms.
And recently the bucket has turned into a backpack.
Blessings in a Backpack caught the attention of many Lake Orion community members when they saw it named charity of the year for 2012 in People magazine. These same community members organized a local chapter of Blessings in a Backpack to fuel kids through the weekend.
"Because they're backpacks they don't look so conspicuous, so kids don't have to be embarrassed about taking their food home," said Emily Miller, president of the Key Club at Lake Orion High School, a club dedicated to service projects.
Students pick up the backpacks on Friday and bring them back Monday for a reload.
Miller first got involved as a volunteer packer. She and other students in the Key Club meet Wednesdays to load mac'n'cheeze, juice boxes, ramen noodles and peanut butter into the blessed carriers. They are delivered in blue tubs to the two elementary schools on Fridays so the kids can wear them home.
Nationally, Blessings in a Backpack feeds 58,000 children in 498 schools a year.
An application or a note is sent home to the families using the free and reduced lunch program plan, notifying them of the weekend service. Some use it, some don't.
"Just with the economy taking such a hard hit in our area, the numbers of the free and reduced lunches have gone up in some of our schools," said Angela Snyder, co-chair of the Lake Orion back pack service.
"But still, the statistics, when we heard them, were very, very alarming to us, because you don't think it's happening in your community. You don't think it's happening to your neighbors, to the kids that your children are going to school with," she said.
The vision is not only to feed hungry kids, but also to improve test scores, reading scores, positive behavior and overall health.
The schools become a resource for the student to connect to.
"The children feel a real attachment to things that take care of them, so it has that emotional effect as well, knowing that their school cares," said Dine Dunaskiss, principal of Pine Tree.
Although Meijer gives the charity a price cut on menu items, the entire process is very costly.
"We've got to raise a lot of money, and educators are not the best fundraisers," Goethals stated.
Their goal is to raise $41,000 this summer in order to feed another two LO elementary schools in the fall, adding more schools to the queue when they can afford it.
If individuals donate $80, Blessings in a Backpack can feed one child every weekend of the school year.
For the Lake Orion branch, donations have come in a variety of ways. They have dine-to-donate nights. Local organizations such as the Optimist Club made contributions. Banks have made substantial donations and there are future plans for fun events.
Snyder said it is very much a community driven effort. Not only have many Lake Orion graduates made generous contributions, local businesses — like State Farm Insurance and Total Repair Express — have too.
"A lot of it is just parents or local businesses. A lot of our educators help because they're seeing it on a first hand basis," Snyder said. "When people hear about it they wanna help."
Checks payable to: Blessings in a Backpack-Lake Orion can be sent to NWCF-BIAB-Lake Orion, North Woodward Community Foundation, 1120 E. Long Lake Road, Troy, MI 48085, or you can make a donation online at http://www.blessingsinabackpackmi.org/donations.php.
Since the program was just started, the students are very excited about the backpacks.
Thursdays roll around and "the little ones ask, is it today we get the backpacks," Goethals said. "No, no it's tomorrow, Friday," she has to tell them.
Snyder said not many people know one in five kids don't eat over the weekend in many communities
"Kids are hungry, flat out," she said. "On Monday, a lot of kids are a lot more renewed and refreshed and ready to learn, because they have some nutrition in them."
And now, summer is the next obstacle.
If you would like to learn more about the Lake Orion volunteering or other services, visit www.blessingsinabackpacklakeorion.org.