Program provides weekend meals to students

Lisa Depies
Volunteers Betty Palaski, left, and Amy Roberts pack food bags as part of the Backpack?Blessings program.

Meals are provided for students in need during the school day, but weekends can stretch into long hours of hunger.

Organizers of Backpack Blessings in Geneseo hope to meet weekend food needs.

Backpack Blessings provides nutritious, “kid friendly” food to children who live in “food insecure households (those without consistent access to food) to get them through the weekend when school breakfasts and lunches are not available.

“As I was around town, I kept hearing about hungry children,” said Sheryle Vergane who started the program.

She knew of similar organizations that provided weekend meals to students in Rock Island and Kewanee and thought it was a program that might be of use in Geneseo.

“When?I approached the schools, they said ‘Yes, we definitely need this,’” said Vergane.

According to school district statistics, 23 percent of Geneseo’s 2,600 students receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Recently, the Backpack Blessings program Vergane started was adopted as a local mission of First United Methodist Church.

Each week, a gallon Ziplock bag is filled with six to eight food items, such as granola bars, cereal, canned fruit, juice boxes, instant oatmeal and canned meals such as stew, soup or pasta.

Volunteer Kathy McClimon said both Country Market and Fareway grocery stores in Geneseo have been generous in their support of the program. Both stores provide food to the program at-cost.

On a weekly basis, volunteers gather to pack the food parcels, which are then distributed to the schools.

“We don’t know who the students are who receive the bags, and we don’t want to know,” said McClimon. To ensure student privacy, the group works with the school district’s social workers who connect the bags to students in need.

Fifty-one Geneseo students have been served, and volunteers expect that number to increase during the 2011-12 school year.

“We sent bags to every school, including St. Malachy’s,” said McClimon.

“In the few short months the Backpack Blessings program has been up and running, they have generously provided for several students in need of food within our community and the numbers continue to grow,” said Jill Woulf, a social worker with the Geneseo School District.

“We have received positive feedback from students and parents have expressed their gratitude for the program. It is comforting to know that this program has been able to offer our students in need a meal to eat over the weekend that would otherwise be difficult for these families to financially provide,” Woulf added.

Though First United Methodist Church is the project’s supporting organization, Vergane said volunteers from throughout the community have stepped forward to help.

“They’ve been hearing about the program through word-of-mouth,” she explained.

On a weekly basis during the school year, volunteers form an assembly line and pack the bags.

“We’re on a learning curve now, and we hope to have things even better organized next fall,” said Vergane. “We’d like to have daytime and nightime packings so all those who’d like to volunteer have a chance.”

Organizers are hoping for donations from the community to help fund Backpack Blessings.

“Every penny we receive is used directly for food. There is no overhead cost,”?said McClimon. Each bag of food costs approximately?$5.50.

Families in need of food assistance during the summer months, are asked to contact the Geneseo Food Pantry.

Donations to First United Methodist Church with “Backpack Blessings” in the memo field may be mailed to: 302 N. State St.,?Geneseo, IL 61254.

For more information on Backpack Blessings or to volunteer, contact Vergane at (309) 236-6655.