Weekend backpack programs provide food for homeless students

Holy Comforter one of several churches which have taken on the mission of feeding homeless children.

Six children at a local elementary school pick up a backpack at the end of the school day on Fridays filled with nutritious snacks and ready-to-eat foods they can share with their families. All six are categorized as homeless.

Members of the Church of the Holy Comforter, in Lutherville, worried about homeless children going through a weekend of hunger pangs, and organized the backpack project at the beginning of the school year. When they started, there were four children, now there are six. The name of the school has been withheld so as to not stigmatize the homeless children.

"We thought this might be a really good way to make a long-term change in people's lives," said Monica Butta, who organized the project for her church, and is the wife of the rector, the Rev. Chris Tang.

These children will be in the prayers of the Lutherville Episcopal congregation when they gather for Holy Comforter's Thanksgiving service, Wednesday, Nov. 26. And the committee is hoping their efforts will inspire others to reach out to such children in need.

Church of the Holy Comforter will hold a multi-denominational Thanksgiving service along with St. Paul's Lutheran and Trinity Episcopal Churches, Wednesday, Nov. 26 at 7 p.m. Members of the community are invited and asked to bring non-perishable food items such as granola bars, tuna fish, fruit cups, juice boxes, milk boxes and single-serve cereal which will go in future backpacks.

Holy Comforter's efforts got started with a request to Baltimore County Public Schools for a school where homeless children attend.

"We were just shocked to find that there are students in this area who fall into this category," Butta said.

Committee members know very little about the children they serve every week. Only recently, did they learn the children range from second- to fifth-graders and live temporarily with friends or families with very little of their own. They don't know the children's names.

The church's efforts might make a difference in the lives of these few children — but, Butta said, there's so much more to do. "We know there's a huge need," she said.

Butta said they were told that more than 3,000 homeless children attend public schools in Baltimore County and qualify for free meals at school — but there are few resources available to keep them fed on the weekend. "We'd like to engage other communities, faith communities or service organization," she said.

Members of Holy Comforter, which is a founding member of the Assistance Center of Towson Churches (ACTC), supported the organization's outreach programs but Butta said they wanted to do something themselves to help homeless children in the county's public schools. Although they may qualify for meals at school, church members wondered what they were eating on the weekends.

"On weekends, it's a real problem," Butta said.

Worries about hunger during the holidays had the Holy Comforter committee looking for additional solutions. This Thanksgiving, the children will receive special Thanksgiving baskets along with their usual weekend food, Butta said. She added that Whole Foods grocer has made a donation for both the weekend backpacks and the Thanksgiving food. Plans for Christmas break are also in the works to make sure the children have extra food and gift cards to help with non-food items, according to Butta.

One of the school's teachers has said the church's outreach has already made a difference for her students. "It's helping whole families," Butta said.

Need throughout area

Holy Comforter's outreach is the newest of these weekend food programs. Towson United Methodist Church began assembly weekend backpacks about five years ago when they learned about homeless children in a school near the church, according to Cathy Anderson, the church's director of communication. As at Holy Comforter, members of the congregation donate food for backpacks for eight children.

"The program has grown because of the need," Anderson said.

For more than a year, Timonium United Methodist Church has packed weekend food supplies for a local middle school, according to Kelly Gray, who with Linda Barone coordinates the congregation's efforts.

"We've been really happy to help," she said, noting that there has been a "wonderful response" from the congregation.

School officials, Gray said, have seen results. "Absentee rates have dropped this this program began," she said.

ACTC helps another 37, according to Cathy Burgess, executive director of ACTC. All the children being helped attend Towson area schools.

Luann Blackman, a teacher at St. Paul School for Girls, came to ACTC with the idea of organizing a backpack project after seeing something similar while she was on vacation in Florida in summer of 2013. When school started that fall, the backpack program started at one Baltimore County public school. Now they help seven.

Blackman said she was inspired by the Florida project and came home looking for something similar. "I couldn't find any, so I started one," she said. She went to ACTC with her idea where it took hold.

Now ACTC volunteers take backpacks to the schools while churches and individuals make cash and food donations to keep the backpacks filled.

The need is great. The homeless school population numbered 3,136 for the 2013-14 school year, according to Dean Coletta, residency liaison for Baltimore County Public Schools. That was much higher than the previous year's 2,454, he said.

"We've had a steady increase," Coletta said. One reason, he said, is the school system has gotten better at identifying children who, due to foreclosure, eviction or economic hardship, have had to move in with family members, live in a shelter or long-term hotel or, worse, a car.

"It's not by choice," Coletta said.

Identifying homeless children is important for streamlining the enrollment process for these students. Past school records and immunization records may not be available so the school system does what it can "to knock down barriers to enrollment."

In Baltimore City where more than 2,000 children attend public schools, the Maryland Food Bank is working on a pilot program for 100 children, according to Joanna Warner, director of communications. "That's not nearly at the numbers we're looking for," she said, noting that they hope to keep expanding the program.

Their program grew out of the efforts of the Charles Village-based Heart's Place Services, according to Carol Berman, Heart's Place director. After Heart's Place closed its shelter in 2012, the organization, based at St. John's United Methodist Church, turned its efforts to starting the backpack program. It started with one school, grew to 56 backpacks. When the Maryland Food Bank became involved last year, it grew to 100.

"It's a small program. It's growing," Berman said, explaining Heart's Place funds 25 percent of the cost of the backpacks.

Hunger has devastating effects on children in school, Warner said. The students have trouble concentrating and have less energy. She said they are twice as likely to repeat a grade and three times as likely to be suspended. "That's just a few consequences of hunger," Warner said.

Each group packs their backpacks a little differently but all contain filing, nutritious ready-to-eat foods such as granola bars, milk and juice boxes, cereal and a loaf of bread. Butta said Holy Comforter wanted to be sure to include substantial foods, such as canned tuna and meat and peanut butter in their packs. Maryland Food Bank, concerned about food allergies, eschews any peanut products.

Hearts' Place Services supplies a few extras to include in their packs.

"We thought the backpacks needed some sweets," Berman said. But in addition to a little candy or cookies, they add in toothbrushes and toothpaste once a month. "We know bad teeth can lead to bad health," Berman said.

Butta said they can't presume the family has access to a stove or microwave — or even refrigeration. But they do believe the backpacks feed more than the student. "We know the children share," Butta said.

At each of the churches, parishioners donate the items that will go to the children every Friday afternoon.

At Towson United Methodist, participants in support groups meeting at the church, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or a young mothers' group, also give. Anderson always knows when there has been a meeting the previous night: "There will be all kinds of packages in the morning."

"It's very hard to be homeless in this county," Anderson said.

Church of the Holy Comforter is located at 130 West Seminary Ave in Lutherville. For details, call 410-252-2711 or email outreach.chc@comcast.net.

For information about ACTC's program, go to actconline.info.

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