Hungry Kids Unzip Blessing-Filled Backpacks


GENESEO -- When some kids from ''food-insecure households'' unpack their bookbags after a week of school, they find more than homework and textbooks.
They find a weekend's worth of food and a local church's blessings, too.
Needy students in the Geneseo School District earlier this year began finding one-gallon Ziploc bags containing six to eight food items, including cereal bars, cereal, canned fruit, juice boxes, instant oatmeal and canned meals such as stew, soup or pasta in their backpacks when they got home on Fridays.
The Backpack Blessing program, a local mission project of Geneseo's First United Methodist Church, is designed to make sure kids have nutritious, "kid-friendly" food over the weekends, when school breakfasts and lunches aren't available to them, program implementer and church member Sheryle Vergane said.
She defined ''food-insecure households'' as those lacking consistent access to food.
Mrs. Vergane began hearing about "hungry children" in Geneseo last year, and approached Geneseo schools with her idea. She was told it was something definitely needed.
Free or reduced lunches are given to 22.45 percent of Geneseo's 2,673 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade, school district business operations director Jack Schlindwein said.
Nationally, 9 percent of children live in extreme poverty, according to March figures from the National Center for Children in Poverty that Mrs. Vergane cited.
In Illinois, it's 6 percent, she said.
''Our average in Geneseo is lower, but is alarming at 2.7 percent," Mrs. Vergane said.
School officials predict the number of students served free or reduced meals will increase for the next school year.
Backpack Blessings began in March, and served 39 students. That number has grown to 51 students.
To ensure student privacy, the church group works with the school district's social workers to connect bags to needy students, volunteer Kathy McClimon said.
Her husband, Rich McClimon, and she, members at St. Malachy Church in Geneseo, were looking for a mission project and were referred to Mrs. Vergane by Geneseo Food Pantry director Nancy Noord shortly after Backpack Blessings began.
To further ensure privacy, bags of food are ''discreetly placed in the child's backpack on the last day of school each week by school staff,'' Mrs. Vergane said.
Fareway and Country Market in Geneseo have donated food for the program, Mrs. Vergane said.
''We also are able to buy certain food items through the River Bend Food Bank,'' she said.
Church and community volunteers meet monthly during the school year to pack the bags.
''We're on a learning curve now, and we hope to have things better organized in the fall,'' Mrs. Vergane said. ''We'd like to have daytime and nighttime packing, so all who would like to help will have the opportunity.''
She also hopes for more community donations.
Contributions can be mailed to First Untied Methodist Church, 302 N. State St., Geneseo, IL 61254, with ''Backpack Blessings'' written on the memo line.
For information, or to volunteer, call Mrs. Vergane at 309-236-6655.
(Reprinted with permission from the Faith and Values section of May 27 issue of the Moline Dispatch. Story and photo by Claudia Loucks.)