When a community comes together to feed hungry children, everybody wins. The Valparaiso Community Schools - with the help of many community partners - initiated the Backpack Program several years ago to help meet the needs of hungry children over the weekends and vacation times. School officials and volunteers pack bags with child-friendly, non perishable foods and discreetly distribute them to qualifying students each Friday as they head home from school for the weekend. Each pack includes breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack for each day the child is out of school.
Children in need are identified by self-referral, and by the enrollment in the free and reduced meal programs at the schools. While it is unfortunate that the need has increased in all Valparaiso schools since last year, the good news is, the community is coming together to address it.
“Research shows that children who come to school hungry do not learn well,” said Cicely Powell, director of school culture and student services, and chair of the social work department for Valparaiso Community Schools. “It is good to see the community and our teachers work together to provide support.”
Powell, a licensed clinical social worker, said a number of organizations and individuals contribute to the program’s success.
“We have some people who are one-time donors, and others who have adopted this as their company’s community service project. All of the support is welcome,” Powell said.
Sleep Airway Solutions, a local sleep dentistry office headed by Dr. Michael Uzelac, is a big supporter of the program. Powell said the office donated cash, and bought 1,200 reusable backpacks to keep the program going. Dr. Uzelac is one of the area’s only dentists to treat obstructive sleep apnea with oral appliances, as the field of sleep medicine is relatively new. But in general, he’s been a practicing dentist since 1982, committed to taking good care of the community in many facets.
"When I learned that children in Valparaiso were going hungry on weekends, it broke my heart,” Dr. Uzelac said. “I felt compelled to do something about it. My hope is that everybody learns about this program and pitches in to help."
Powell said Gracepoint Church in Valparaiso also is a large supporter of the Backpack Program. They hold a major concert benefit called GoodStock in Valpo’s Central Plaza each year, and collect enough food at that event alone to carry students through winter break in the school year. Cash donations are used to purchase food for the remainder of the year.
Powell is proud of the work each of the schools has done to sustain the program at their respective buildings.
“Each school has a dedicated pantry, and each pantry is run individually to meet that school’s needs,” Powell said. “For example, high school students can cook, so they may have different items in their packs compared to the younger students who need easy-access foods. And, some schools have a greater need for food than others,” she said.
Powell said the next step in growing the program is to explore how to incorporate supplemental items, such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
For more information about how to contribute to the Backpack program for Valparaiso Community Schools, contact Cicely Powell with Valparaiso Community Schools (219) 531-3070 ext. 5544 or firstname.lastname@example.org.