BY NATHAN PAYNE
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Mary Stanton and Jo Walker don’t know the children they help.
They’ll never hear a “thank you.” Nor will they see a smile. Yet simply knowing they are making a difference is enough.
Stanton paused for a moment Wednesday afternoon as the women loaded cases of food into their vehicles behind Meijer. The shipments will feed 160 students during the weekends for the next three weeks. The children participate in the Blessings in a Backpack program in Leelanau County schools, she said.
“How can you not love it,” Stanton said. “They are innocent, it’s not their fault.”
Thirty cases of juice boxes, 20 cases of peanut butter, seven cases of macaroni and cheese and 20 cases of Ramen noodles stuffed the women’s two SUVs along with 34 other cases of food. The pair started the local branch of a national non-profit organization last school year after Stanton spotted an article in People magazine highlighting its benefits.
Blessings in a Backpack was formed in 2005 after a Louisville, Ky., school teacher noticed that students at her school who received free or reduced-price lunches were having trouble focusing after being away from school for the weekends. They came to school Monday mornings sluggish, tired and hungry.
They came hungry because they had no food to eat at home during the weekends. In turn that teacher began a program which sends backpacks filled with easily-prepared foods home with students in need each weekend.
Now, eight years later, independent arms of the national group distribute food to 60,000 students in 544 schools spread across 42 states.
Not knowing what need they would find, Stanton and Walker, both active with Leelanau Christian Neighbors, decided to begin their program small helping about 20 students at one school. But by the end of the school year, that number grew to more than 100 in six schools.
“It was like a gift from the heavens,” Stanton said.
The pair attracted more than 40 volunteers who help them pack the bags in a dedicated room at the Suttons Bay school where they stockpile food for the program. They also convinced the area Rotary Club to raise more than $10,000 for their program.
This week, the women expect to distribute 160 backpacks to students in every school in Leelanau County except Glen Lake where they have been talking with school officials about whether the food program is needed there.
The food shipments for a year and the backpacks for each student cost $100, but Stanton says the food included in the shipments isn’t enough.
“We think that this isn’t enough for a kid,” Stanton said.
“We’ve been adding $1.50 per week,” Walker said.
The women made a full-time job out of soliciting donations and securing food for the program’s participants. They sometimes meet resistance from donors about why families shouldn’t provide for children, but Stanton says she stops the argument quickly.
“I say, ‘Well, do you want to debate it or do you want to feed the kids,’” she said. She chooses to feed the kids.
There also have been concerns raised in the past about stigmatizing the students who need the help, but Walker said social workers in the schools have been very careful to keep the students confidential.
Overall the women say Leelanau County has been exceedingly supportive of the effort.
The community effort is one Laurie Borysiak would like to emulate in her branch of the program in Grand Traverse County.
Borysiak began feeding four middle school students in Traverse City. Now, between both middle schools, her program feeds about 35 students each year.
But she knows there are many more students across the county who could use a consistent supply of food through the weekends.
“Originally, I wanted every school to have a program,” she said. “If I had the backers and had the money, there is a need.”
For now Borysiak says she fills the need of the two schools where she distributes. In all the schools, social workers coordinate who gets the backpacks and gets a signed permission slip from each parent.
Borysiak talks with business and professional groups as often as she can, but says fundraising isn’t her forte.
“They definitely know how to do that,” she said of the Leelanau County group. Nonetheless, she is determined to continue to help feed students in need. “I will continue to do this as long as there is a need for it.”
If you want to help If you want to help either group, call either Leelanau Christian Neighbors at 271-0091 or Laurie Borysiak at 929-0849.