Greensboro News & Record Feature, December 6, 2008
By Nancy H. McLaughlin and photos by Neslon Kepley
Because the deli worker at Food Lion calls Phyllis Kelly each time the $1.50 packs of no-refrigeration-needed waffles go on sale for $1, children in Greensboro North Carolina will have them for breakfast over the weekend.
The waffles were among food items placed into “High School Musical” or more nondescript backpacks that on Friday were passed out to needy children at two elementary schools. These children, and possibly their families, could go hungry without them.
“You don’t know the number of times I end up crying while thinking about this,” said Wendy Smithey, who works alongside Kelly in the missions group at College Park Baptist Church near UNCG, as she delivered backpacks to Peck Elementary School. More than 90 percent of the children at the school are on free or reduced lunch.
The Backpack Club at the mission-minded church on Walker Avenue reaches only a tiny fraction of the children at Peck and Peeler elementaries — the only setback.
“It’s not like, 'Oh, yeah. Whatever,’ when they get them,” said Joanna Flynn, Peck’s full-time social worker. “It’s 'Oh, thanks!’ It’s sad that they’re in a position that they need it. But it’s a reality for many children.”
College Park got the idea from music minister Rydell Harrison, who is also a middle school principal and had heard about similar projects in other communities. It seemed so simple, yet so profound: In Guilford County, more than 12,000 children live at or below the federal poverty level. The backpacks would be stuffed with nutritious foods, and the children would be asked to return the backpack on Mondays.
The process is intentionally discreet. The book bags look just like everyone else’s.
“Nobody needs to look down on them or make them feel bad about taking it,” said church member Deborah Hill.
The ministry began in March with five students at Peck. In September, it expanded to include 13 children at Peck and seven at Peeler. When a child is home sick, the parent will almost always pick it up, said Flynn, who has delivered some of the backpacks to children at home and has watched as food was rationed out.
“We’ve gotten some oatmeal back and some Cream of Wheat,” said Kelly, on the constant search to stretch the dollars they have while sending home foods the family will eat. Most of them don’t send anything back.
The program is designed to make sure individual children are fed. So early on, super shoppers like Kelly looked for bargains on single-serving items such as Beanie Weanies, which can cost about a dollar or more. Now, they get three-for-$1 cans of pork and beans to go along with cans of Vienna sausages, which is cheaper per person and goes further.
Sometimes there’s canned beef stew and cans of potatoes.
At holidays, they try to get creative — adding candy the weekend of Halloween and toothbrushes the week after that. At Christmas, they’ll get hats and gloves.
Implementation is down to a science, with a spreadsheet of volunteer duties and dates and an e-mail alert for church members who want to help when items go on sale.
On Wednesdays, the backpacks are spread out across the stage of the church fellowship hall, and in 15 minutes, all the items to be sent home with each child are stacked alongside a backpack — with 3-year-old Isaac Cravey knowing just where to place each can of corn.
The church wants to expand the project by gaining partners from other congregations, nonprofits or individuals looking for a way to reach out and help others — or sharing their blueprint with others who could adopt schoolchildren. At least 27 bags of food were recently collected for the project’s food pantry by a youth group at New Garden Friends Meeting.
With efficient shopping and donations, the budget is down to $6 per backpack, with items such as family-size boxed macaroni and cheese and canned beef stew.
The group is looking for grants but understands that possible underwriters and foundations will be looking for outcomes that they’ve yet to measure.
“Right now all we have is the feedback from the social workers, and they say it makes a difference,” Harris said.
Smithey also knows the program has the potential to expand, especially when people are reminded just how far a little money goes.
Recently, a church member placed a Burger King bag and a drink in front of members of the church, telling them he paid $5.90 for the single meal. He told them that could have sponsored another backpack.
“I think we must have had $200 come in that Sunday,” Smithey said.