During her sophomore year at Oakland Mills High School, Alexa Kanakry spent an hour every Thursday sorting food and filling 16 backpacks for Blessings in a Backpack, a nonprofit that provides food for elementary-age students during the school year.
Now a junior, Kanakry was back in action last Thursday, topping that previous effort with another 35 backpacks the school's program provides each week.
"It might take a little longer this year," Kanakry, 16, said. "I love it. Knowing that we are helping these kids that don't always have food ... it's not that hard to do once a week and fit it in."
Many of the kids who receive the backpacks take advantage of free and reduced-priced meals at schools during the week, but the backpack initiative is designed to keep them supplied over the weekends, when they might have little or nothing.
Blessings in a Backpack is a national organization that, according to its website, helps feed nearly 62,000 children in 546 schools in 43 states. Last Thursday, representatives from the national organization were scheduled to be in Washington for an event at the Department of Education headquarters, where — with the help of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and members of Congress — 1,000 backpacks were to be assembled.
Tamala Reid, a substitute teacher and longtime volunteer at Talbott Springs Elementary School in Columbia, brought the program to her school, where it found a warm welcome. Last Thursday, to coincide with the Washington event, students at Talbott Springs pitched in to help assemble backpacks.
"There is certainly a need," said Talbott Springs Principal Nancy Thompson. "What we are really focusing on is making sure children come to school ready to learn."
It costs $80 — about $2.22 a week — to feed one child over 39 weekends, Reid said. A request for monetary donations put in the school's PTA newsletter was successful, Reid said, and she and her volunteers wear Blessings in a Backpack T-shirts to further recognition of the program.
"I haven't had to do anything big," Reid said of the fundraising.
Last year's program was smaller, though, and as it expands, meeting the budget is tricky, said Reid, who does the shopping.
"We try to make it as nutritious as possible," Reid said. "Mac and cheese, ravioli, cereal, juice boxes, snacks."
One volunteer donates fruit every week, she said. Howard County farmers' markets have also been generous, she added.
"For long weekends, we pack extra food in there," Reid said. "If there are multiple children in a family, each gets a backpack."
The backpacks all have numbers on them — no names are assigned to protect anonymity — and are distributed Fridays by guidance counselors.
"It is very carefully done so nobody feels like everybody has to know their business," Reid said.
"We try to keep it as private as possible," Thompson said of the distribution. "[The students] show such gratitude for these bags. They know it is a gift."
Reid's daughter, Erin, has also been a part of the backpack program since its start last year at Talbott Springs. The 16-year-old junior says it is "a lot of fun."
"It's good to help the community," she said. "I hope it continues to grow throughout the county."
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Swansfield Elementary in Columbia is now considering the program. Both Erin Reid and Kanakry recently visited the school and talked with school officials. Reid said many people are surprised to learn poverty is an issue in Howard County.
"We don't know what is going on. There is a great need," she said. "There is nothing worse than a child not able to function."
Thompson agrees and said it would be more productive if poverty was not such a taboo subject.
"I wish that the poverty issue was openly addressed in this county," Thompson said. "Many people in poverty didn't expect to be in poverty. Just because one is in poverty doesn't mean they did something wrong."
Backpacks are also distributed when summer school is in session, and Thompson said she'd like to explore ways to help all through the year.
"We can't completely fix the poverty and the homelessness," Thompson said. "We have a moral obligation to support these kids and these families."
For more information on Blessings in a Backpack, go to blessingsinabackpack.org.