Saturday, May 18, 2024

Backpack program continues to feed students in the area, despite challenges

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LEAVENWORTH – The United Methodist Church’s backpack program has been feeding students for almost a decade, but late last winter it lost the critical help of its program leader, Dean Groby. Yet nearly a year later, the program is still going strong, feeding 55 students and their families across the school district.

For years Groby led the program, handling all of the logistics such as meal planning and bi-weekly shopping. However, Groby had to step down at the end of last winter due to health reasons, and later passed away. This school year is the first full year without Groby leading the way.

“He did all of it and we just would come and pack and be happy as little clams. Now, we have to take up the slack. But the people have really stepped up to do it, so that's probably our biggest change really, and truly, we've just kept it rolling,” said Judy Weaver, a long-time volunteer.

Now, it’s a team effort. Weaver coordinates with the schools about numbers. Joyce Schiferl and Donna Whalen plan the menu. Two couples make the bi-weekly shopping trip and prep the food to be packed. Then, every Wednesday, around 10 volunteers gather in the basement of United Methodist Church to pack bags of food for the students.

Each bag contains three breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners, and snacks. Just before school breaks, volunteers pack bags with twice as much food. Once packed, they are shipped to Peshastin-Dryden Elementary, Icicle River Middle School, and Cascade High School for students to pick up. 

“I think if you asked the schools they wouldn't see anything. I think we've been able to pick up the pieces and move on because [Groby] had structured things so well,” said volunteer Mary Nelson. 

The inconspicuous bags are packed with shelf-stable essentials, and delivered in the main office, so that students can put the bags in their backpacks in private. The students are kept anonymous from even the volunteers.

“We're trying to make it okay for them and not make it a big deal. It's hard to know how to deliver these so that kids aren't embarrassed by picking up their bags and swinging home with them. This is something they can put in a backpack, or they can carry it and it's pretty innocuous. There’s kind of some anonymity to it, which I think we've done a pretty good job of,” said Weaver.

The volunteers go even further to make students feel like their peers, by adding holiday themed food such as turkey for Thanksgiving and pancake mix for Mother’s Day. As often as they can, the group will add what they call “expensive treat snacks,” such as Oreos. 

“That way, the kid feels like they're like any other kid at school,” said one volunteer.

Although the program is an initiative from the United Methodist Church, not all the volunteers are a part of the church. Some volunteers are Catholic, and others have gotten involved through friends. Many, however, are retired teachers and principals.

“And we all know the impact of not having enough food,” said Nelson, who is a retired principal.

Everyone is welcome to volunteer or donate. Volunteers meet at 9 a.m. every Wednesday and are done as soon as 9:30 a.m. The packing takes place in the basement of United Methodist Church, at 418 Evans Street. For more information or to get involved, call the United Methodist Church office at 509-548-5619.

Taylor Caldwell: 509-433-7276 or taylor@ward.media

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