Purdy School District's backpack program is growing -- from 27 students at Thanksgiving to approximately 40 following Christmas break.
The reason for the added numbers of students taking part in the program is two-fold: the need for students to have nutritional supplements when they are not in classes and the financial backing to ensure the program is sustained until year's end.
"We started in October of this year with 27 students," said Rebecca Schallert, one of the program's founders. "After Christmas, we expect to have 40 students. We will be able to add those kids due to a recent fundraiser and the added commitment of a couple of local church groups."
The backpack program at Purdy is similar to those in schools elsewhere in Barry and Lawrence counties. School officials help determine the students most in need of receiving nutritional assistance and volunteers within the community help in making sure their needs are met.
"We do a majority of our shopping at Aldi's, Walmart, Dollar General and Sam's Club," Schallert said. "We price shop to get the most for our money, and we make sure that each backpack is filled with identical items. We don't want issues arising between siblings, because one received one type of item and the other something else."
Schallert also said the school nurse is consulted concerning possible food allergies of the students receiving the food items.
|"We only have one child with allergies," Schallert said.||Backpacks are filled with easy to open and eat food items consisting of a protein, a fruit or pudding cup, fruit juice and a milk product. Enough of each group of foods is packed to sustain the child for six meals over a weekend period. This includes two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners.|
"It may not be perfectly nutritious, but we do the best we can," Schallert said. "We have to have food that is non-perishable, doesn't have to be microwaved, essentially open and eat items. We're considering elementary school kids and what they can do by themselves."
The program is an outreach of Vision Leadership, a committee comprised of volunteers from St. John's Lutheran Church at Stones Prairie in Purdy. Although Vision Leadership spearheaded the campaign, eight local churches have pledged their support to the backpack program in addition to various business owners in the community.
"People just find it hard to believe that when one of these kids leaves school on Friday that they won't have a meal again until school resumes on Monday morning," Schallert said. "A friend of mine is a school teacher [in Barry County] and told me that one of her kindergarten students told her she was going to make pizza bread for herself and her younger sibling that weekend. Pizza bread turned out to be a slice of white bread with ketchup on it.
"Not only was this child making pizza bread for herself, but she was having to make it for a younger child as well," Schallert said.
The need for the nutritional program is very evident to teachers and administrators on Monday morning.
"You walk into the cafeteria and see these little kids just inhale their breakfast," Schallert said. "You know they haven't eaten all weekend."
The program not only benefits elementary school children but their older, school-aged siblings as well.
"So far, we've had over 100 applications for the program," Schallert said. "We have the school administer the applications and decide who is eligible, based on the greatest need to the least greatest need. School officials are also responsible for collecting the backpacks and distributing them back out once they are filled. Students in this program are completely anonymous to the Vision Leadership committee."
Cost of the program runs approximately $7 per week, per child. In January, when classes resume after Christmas break, it will cost approximately $280 a week to meet the needs of the program. This year, there is the financial commitment to make that goal a reality.
"We won't start a kid on the program unless we know that we are able to sustain them through the year," Schallert said. "We never wanted to get in over our heads.
"We hope to make the fundraiser an annual event," she continued. "We might have to change the timing."
A recent soup lunch and gospel sing netted approximately $2,100 to benefit the program. Thrivent Financial for Lutherans matched up to $600.
"That's the major reason we are going to be able to increase to 40 kids now," Schallert said. "And another church came through on their financial commitment."
Schallert said Vision Leadership hopes to sustain the program as long as there is a need.
"Of course we hope the economy turns around," Schallert said. "But until it does, we are committed to this. It's hard to believe that there are that many kids out there that are that hungry. You want to believe that your community is able to sustain them."
Vision Leadership is accepting donations for the program, and community members donating to local charities just makes sense to Schallert.
"There are all the big name charities out there, but when you donate to your local charity, you see it doing good in your own community," Schallert said. "The money stays local and community members will benefit. It's as close to home as you can get."
For more information on the Purdy backpack program, contact Schallert at 417-737-0311. Donations may also be made at First State Bank under the Vision Leadership account.