With a rise in job loss and financial stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Walker County and Chickamauga school districts have seen increasing food insecurity in students, officials say.
Backpack Blessings, a volunteer program that helps to counteract food insecurity for students, has always played a large part in meeting the needs of local families, so its 2021 annual fundraising was especially integral, said John Donahoo, the program's coordinator.
According to the website of the North Georgia Community YMCA, which oversees the program in partnership with the Walker Family Connection and Walker County and Chickamauga school districts, Backpack Blessings provides students with a sack of nutritious meals to take home each weekend.
Donahoo, who also serves as executive director of the North Georgia Community YMCA, said volunteers pack meals each Tuesday and deliver them to the schools each Thursday where they are given to students in need by their teachers and counselors.
"The program has run for seven years and currently serves 650-700 students in pre-K through 12th grade," Donahoo said. "Annually, the program produces 15,000-20,000 meals for students."
The demand for Backpack Blessings continues to grow, according to Laura Beth Newsom, Walker Family Connection coordinator, who says 20% of Walker County students live in poverty. Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines said that 73% of his district's students qualify to receive free or reduced-price lunch.
"With the uncertainty of COVID and living paycheck to paycheck, many of the families in our area don't know if they will be able to put food on the table," Raines said. "That's why, as an educator, it's important to be able to provide meals for students through programs like Backpack Blessings."
Melody Day, superintendent of Chickamauga's school district, said that Chickamauga City Schools got involved with Backpack Blessings three years ago after one of her employees, who volunteered with the program, mentioned it to her.
"She (the employee) was impressed with how organized the program was and she was passionate about getting involved and helping the students at the city schools here who really needed it," said Day. "The program continues to be a big help for students today, which is much needed during this pandemic."
In order to meet increasing needs and sustain the program, fundraising events are held each year. Backpack Blessings has a group of loyal donors, but a lot of the funds are raised by the schools, which host their own events.
"In previous years, both Walker County [Schools] and Chickamauga City Schools raised a lot of funds through their 'kiss a goat' event where students would raise money to see their principal kiss a goat," said Day. "But we had to change things up [this year] and so we collected change through things like 'PJ day,' 'crazy sock day' and 'movie day.'"
The goal this year was to raise $15,000. The two school districts, along with loyal community donors, raised $21,032, according to Donahoo.
"The resilience of our students and their desire to take care of each other really impresses me," said Raines. Even those students who could benefit from the program themselves were fundraising and giving this year, he said.
"I've seen firsthand the value of a food sack for students," said Newsom. Being able to provide meals over the weekend to help sustain a child until they are able to come back to school on Monday has a positive impact on the lives of each student, she added.
According to Newsom, giving of the food sacks used to be more discreet than in the last year.
"Students used to be embarrassed to receive help, but because of the overall help and acceptance from other students, they are more open about receiving their food sacks now," she said.
Being able to meet the basic needs of students is important, especially to Raines, who says he likely would've been one of the students receiving food sacks each week when he was growing up.
"Programs like Backpack Blessings allow us to show students that they are important and cared for," Raines said.
Those interested in volunteering to pack meal sacks can reach out to John Donahoo at email@example.com.
Contact Samantha Burgess at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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