By Kerry Scott
Thursday afternoons at LivingStone Academy in Fort Payne are a bustle of activity. Excited children gather around rows of long tables piled high with foods such as tuna, peanut butter, ravioli, crackers, granola bars, instant oatmeal, Fruit Roll-Ups and juice boxes. With the help of several adult volunteers, they prepare bags with a weekend’s worth of breakfast, lunch and snack items to feed some of the hungriest kids in DeKalb County each week throughout the school year thanks to a program called Backpacks of Blessings.
The idea of helping feed the hungry in her community struck Kelli Gardner last year while watching the movie “Good Deeds” by Tyler Perry. In the movie, a struggling single mother ends up homeless and is forced to take her daughter to work with her. “By the end of the movie, I was on my knees in tears and knew that God wanted me to do something,” recalls Gardner.
After telling friends and family about her desire to help in some way, she began researching and learned some startling statistics.
According to Kids Count, a national data center, approximately 249,000 Alabama children lived in households that were “food insecure” at some point in 2012.
Gardner also learned there were 400 children in DeKalb County that were classified as homeless. “These children aren’t necessarily living under a bridge,” says Gardner, “but they have some pretty scary stories about their home situation — living with friends or going from one home to another and never knowing where they’ll be.”
Identifying the need
Gardner took the idea to her church, LivingStone Ministries, and they agreed to help oversee the program. Collinsville School was identified as having the most immediate need. With the help of teachers and counselors, about 35 kids were found to be underprivileged.
She called upon local businesses and churches to help start the program. By the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, those 35 kids were receiving bags with two breakfasts, two lunches and snack items for the weekends. It took more food than would fit in a backpack to feed the children over extended school holidays. On those occasions, either parents pick up the box from school or a network of volunteers deliver them to the childrens’ homes.
In January, Pine Ridge Baptist joined the effort and began providing bags for children in need at Plainview School. Broadway Baptist has come along beside them to help as well. “I believe this is an outreach of the gospel,” says Gardner. “Sometimes feeding the hungry is a way to get there, and it’s an important way.”
Helping local people in need makes this cause doubly important, according to Gardner’s helper, Katie Patterson. “Part of the heart behind Backpacks of Blessings is that we really want to see our neighbors and community helping our local people,” she explains. “When the local body of Christ is serving its people, that’s how you stay in touch with the needs in your community. When Kingdom resources are being used, I believe we will see Kingdom results.”
Doing the math
Initially, Gardner was overwhelmed by how much she thought it would take to start the program. But when she started breaking down the numbers, she realized it could happen. Kids are out of school about 92 days during the school year, not counting summer break. At $2.50 per day to feed a child, the total for those days comes to about $230 per child. “That’s doable,” Gardner says.
Gardner says they try to pack nutritious foods that most children will eat. Everything must be ready to eat or something youngsters can easily prepare themselves. “A box of macaroni and cheese might feed more, but we send microwavable cups instead because they don’t have to look for a pot or measure out other ingredients they might not have on hand, and they don’t have to use a stove,” she explains.
Making sure that every pack contains the same items is just as important. Gardner says they don’t ask for food donations because they want to make sure that every pack they prepare is alike unless, of course, a child has food allergies. They purchase food in bulk from local grocery stores when possible and shop at Sam’s Club. “We prefer buying locally,” explains Patterson. “We shop UGO and Wal-Mart — both are supporters of this program — but we have to be frugal.”
When it comes to delivering the bags, Gardner says they try to be discreet. They don’t want the children to be made fun of or made to feel bad. But most of the kids are so glad to have the food that they don’t care who knows. “One boy asked his teacher if he would get another bag because that was all he had to eat at home,” says Gardner. “It’s very touching. These children are grateful.”
Backpacks of Blessings currently serves about 80 kids in two schools. In order to help feed kids in need at other schools, they require help from local businesses, churches and individuals. “When you think about $5 feeding a child for the weekend, you realize that anyone can help,” says Gardner.
“I get passionate because I see God’s provision,” says Gardner. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you look at the numbers. But God will provide. That’s what he does.”
Anyone can help Backpacks of Blessings by making a tax-deductible donation to:LivingStone Ministries Attn: Backpacks of Blessings 609 3rd Street NE Fort Payne, AL 35967
For additional information, or other ways to get involved, call Kelli Gardner at 256-572-3980 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.