By Dorothy Markulis
The ubiquitous backpack
It is truly everywhere. Children trudge home from school toting them with a heavy load of items – books, clothes, games and other useful items.
But for some in four community learning centers in Akron, the backpack is a lifeline, saving the elementary students from hunger.
Blessings in a Backpack, a non-profit volunteer organization, fills those backpacks each week with enough food to sustain a child over the weekend.
“We don’t realize how fortunate we are,” said Akron Blessings in a Backpack director Beth Hudak. “We can’t imagine not having food for our children. During the week the children are fed at school, on the weekends they don’t have anything.”
Hudak, a member of St. Hillary’s Church, is in her fourth year with the Blessings in a Backpack program. She, along with others in her parish discovered the critical needs of the Helen Arnold Learning Center when members of her church began volunteering at the learning center, helping in any way they could by volunteering for reading and other programs at the learning center.
The women, driven by Debbie Pianalto and Jill Eicher contacted the national Blessings in a Backpack program and began the process of joining with the national organization.
Eicher, Pianalto, Hudak and Kelly Ann Behrens now form the board at the Akron Blessings Chapter.
The national movement was founded in 2005 in Louisville, Kentucky when a concerned school teacher brought the issue of weekend hunger to a local philanthropist, according to the organization’s director of marketing and public relations, Nikki Grizzle.
In 2008 Blessings became an official 501(c)3 non-profit organization. It has grown to provide meals for more than 76,000 children in 800 schools in 44 states and the District of Columbia, according to Grizzle.
In Ohio, there are 39 schools committed to Blessings in a Backpack, feeding more than 4,800 students.
That is their mission statement
Joining the national organization with its lofty goals was not an easy task, according to Hudak.
“We got the information from Kentucky and discovered we had to commit to the program for three years,” Hudak said.
“It costs $80 per child each year to provide food for 38 weekends,” Hudak said.
The Akron Blessings program started by feeding 325 elementary students at the Helen Arnold Learning Center.
Since its formation, the women have increased their efforts to feed 260 more students at McEbright Community Learning Center, 50 more children at Crouse Community Learning Center and 50 more at Schumacher Community Learning Center.
Each backpack contains enough food items for the child to get through the weekend.
“What motivates us? Making an impact on these kids,” Hudak said.
The volunteer teams pack the weekend items at the learning centers in the evening after school is dismissed. The volunteers rarely get to see the children receiving their food items.
“That’s okay,” Hudak said. “I know when the shelves are empty that the things we provide have been eaten. It’s a positive thing we’re doing for the community.”
Blessing volunteers note the consequence of hunger is much more than a growling stomach. Poor nutrition can result in a weaker immune system, lower IQ, shorter attention spans and lower academic achievement.
“Since the program began we have seen a dramatic increase in attendance, test scores have gone up and behaviors have improved” Davis said.
Davis called it amazing that one little bag of food can make such a difference for the students.
“And the students are grateful. They really appreciate what they are given,” Davis added.
There’s another blessing that has come with the backpacks, according to Davis. The students are learning compassion and empathy. They share their food with their siblings who aren’t in school and have become aware of others who are in need.
What is the future for blessings
“Right now we’re trying to sustain what we have. It is a huge commitment and it takes a lot of people,” Hudak said.
She said she is very gratified by the group’s teaming up with the Akron Foodbank.
Hudak’s group is also very grateful to local sponsors including Donzell’s, Giant Eagle, Hudson’s Restaurant, Papa Joe’s, barre pose, Towpath Tennis and Don Drumm Studios and Gallery.
Artist Drumm has even designed exclusive ornaments for the local backpack program for sale at Christmas. They are available through the group’s website.
The group has various fundraisers throughout the year and also has benefited from assistance by various civic organizations.
For more information, or to volunteer or donate to the backpack effort, visit its website: www.blessingsakron.org.