Caloosa Belle

Operation: Backpack – So kids don’t miss meals

None of us are exactly strangers to the faces of hunger. They’re on television nightly, on the internet constantly. But not all the hungry are in faraway lands.

Many of the faces of the hungry look exactly like our friends and neighbors – because they are.
Beginning this school term, free breakfast an
d lunch are available to every Hendry County student. Presumably, the kids eat the evening meal at home. Still, food can be scarce on the weekends, especially for kids whose parents have to be at work.

Teams like this one pack sustaining food into backpacks so children can eat over the weekend. Obviously, they know how to have a good time as they work”! Pictured from left: Donna Hull, Rosa Marroquin, Linda O’Ferrell, Patty Gruhn and Lisa Bell. (Patty Brant/Caloosa Belle)

In 2012, a group of LaBelle residents realized that weekends were very hard on many students and were led to do something about it.

So they formed Operation: Backpack to ensure that these children would not go hungry over the weekend and would come to school Monday morning ready for the day.

Donna Hull is the current director of Operation: Backpack. She said that currently, some 150 students per week are served throughout the school year. All LaBelle area schools, including West Glades School, participate.

The program is open to all students in need, K-12, but that most OB kids are at the elementary level.

This year, Operation: Backpack cooperated with St. Matthews House to provide Thanksgiving turkeys and fixings for OB families.

They are also currently working to raise funds to provide food for the Christmas Break. For the 15-day holiday, they need $3,800.

There was no allotment for Spring Break last year, but they’re hoping to be able to provide the food next year. In the past, they have had Peanut Butter and Jelly drives to send two or three jars home with each Operation: Backpack student for the summer.

In addition to the public schools, the LaBelle Woman’s Club, First Baptist Church and Carlson Memorial United Methodist Church partner with the organization. Recently, they added the Pan-Florida Challenge from Naples to their partners.

Together, they are able to provide the sustaining food that gets so many kids through the weekend strictly through donations.

No school or other government funding is used. By donating through any of these groups and designating your gift to go to Operation: Backpack, your donation can be tax deductible.

Here’s how it works:

A “super shopper” OB member scours the area for the best prices on the items they need – the better the prices, the more children who can be served.

Each backpack includes enough food for one child for breakfast, lunch and snacks for Saturday and Sunday: two cans of pasta, one can Vienna sausage, a fruit cup, a single serving of peanut butter, a pudding cup, Raman noodles, granola bar, cereal, Pop Tarts and crackers.

Students are identified by teachers, counselors and parents who might be going hungry over the weekend. Lunch room personnel are in a very good position to identify kids who don’t know where their next meal will come from.

Often these kids will hoard food for later. A liaison at each school contacts the parents who must give their permission.

Once a week, one of ten packing teams gets together to stuff backpacks with the nonperishable items for the kids. Volunteers come from local churches and businesses, with Monsanto being a big supporter, Donna said.

On Friday afternoon, students are given the backpack at the end of the school day. On Monday, they must bring the backpack back so it can be filled for the next weekend.

A liaison from each school delivers the filled backpacks to the schools to be distributed before the kids leave school for the weekend.

Lisa Bell is the treasurer as well as the group’s chairperson for Country Oaks Elementary. Lisa said she feels blessed because she has never been hungry.

She works at COES and sees the big smile on those little4 faces when they get their backpack with food.

They know it means they won’t have to go hungry till they get back to school on Monday.

If the idea of a child going hungry disturbs you, remember that Operation: Backpack always needs more donations, especially with the Christmas holidays upon us.

If you would like to help, please call Donna Hull at 863-234-1564.