Another calling comes along

  • Marge Pratt, Mickey Russo, Kathy Bush and Fran Philippe, the Backpack Program coordinator, pose with backpacks filled with food in 2017. Courtesy of Jennifer Curtis

For Active Aging
Published: 4/22/2019 1:12:15 PM

I was in my 20th year of retirement. Life was full of such a variety of options I couldn’t find an open box on my calendar.

I had been happy in my profession of choice, teaching grades five and six, but I was happier still with the choices I had made in retirement – church group coordinator, cooking dinner at our local soup kitchen; curriculum chairwoman of a lifelong learning institute; active in my church; an active member of our city trails committee; a book group and a weekly hiking group; gardening; kayaking; enjoying the arts; learning to play ukulele; travel ... Could there possibly be anything else of value out there for me to do?

There was, indeed.

On Feb. 14, 2017, I received a regular email from Jennifer Curtis, Retired Senior Volunteer Program coordinator for the Friends Program, looking for volunteers for various projects. I had read these emails before and had only responded once, to walk the dog of another volunteer who was housebound for a bit. But something caught my eye on this particular day.

“Friends RSVP has an immediate need for an energetic and motivated volunteer to take an active leadership role with this project (the Backpack Program), working independently and with other volunteers and partners to coordinate packing backpacks, securing food items, school drop off or pick up. Are you or someone you know interested?”

“Well,” I thought. “That describes me!”

I answered the email and it changed my life.

Not quite knowing exactly what to expect, I attended an informational meeting on Feb. 18, two years ago, crowded with an assortment of people from several organizations that were there to form a partnership to provide weekend food for needy children at Penacook Elementary School. Present were the principal, social worker and kitchen manager of the school as well as the Merrimack Valley School District food services director (one partner); several members of the board of directors of Friends of Forgotten Children (the second partner); representing RSVP, its volunteer coordinator and the finance person at FOFC (the third partner), as well as other interested individuals.

The idea was beginning to take form. They had a name – The Merrimack Valley School District Partnership Backpack Program and a logo – a red backpack in the shape of an apple. (This has since been shortened to the Backpack Program.) They just needed people and a plan.

Our forward motion was motivated by the guest speakers, several members of Grace Episcopal Church, where a similar Take-a-Tote program had been successful for several years. They explained how it was set up, what kinds of foods they provided, cost and how they managed their program, and we were off.

The students at PES who were on free lunch were identified by the food services director and the social worker sent letters home explaining the program and requesting parent permission to have their child/children participate.

Our first bags of food, in new backpacks, went home with 28 students at Penacook Elementary School on March 17.

Thinking the backpacks would be returned to school by everyone was a bit of a dream. Instead, we’ve been packing the food in donated Hannaford grocery bags at FOFC and delivering them to the PES kitchen.

From there they are distributed to the students’ classrooms by the social worker who puts them in the backpacks. Two years later, it’s still working this way.

And two years later, we have progressed to a total of 82 students.

This has been at a very deliberate pace. I wanted each step to be proven workable for all involved, and I wanted to be sure that funding was keeping up before we added another school. In October 2018, working through the Boscawen Welfare Department, 38 students were added at Boscawen Elementary School.

Food is picked up at FOFC and bagged at the Welfare Office by the welfare director and teens, as a kind of community service project.

Five students in Webster and six in Salisbury, both funded by local supporters, were subsequently added, with the bags delivered by the MVSD food services director.

Just recently, we added two children in Loudon, thus making all of the elementary schools in the MVSD a part of the program!

It has been proven, many times over, that when children return to school hungry on Monday mornings, their behavior and productivity in class is affected and that programs such as this alleviate that problem. Therefore, I try to select food items based on nutrition. Each weekend, the bags include a protein, a calcium, a vegetable and fruit (fresh whenever possible) and low-sugar.

Food items are procured from the N.H. Food Bank; fresh produce shared from the FOFC pantry; purchases at BJ’s and Sam’s Club and from local grocery stores when I see items that are on sale.

The bags contain two suppers, three breakfasts, three lunches and two snacks for the weekend. I plan the items on a grid six weeks at a time from which we pull from the pantry, lay them out, heavy to light, and pack. An inventory is kept so that I know when I have to shop.

Hunger isn’t just a school-year problem. Our latest step is providing weekend bags during the four weeks that the MVSD summer-school program is open. Backpack Program families will have the option of picking them up at the summer school or having them delivered to their homes.

Nor is hunger only a problem at the elementary level, so moving on into the middle school will be our next goal.

This success story could not be possible without these important factors. The first is the undying support and commitment of not only the school administration, led by Assistant Superintendent Randy Wormald, but of so many others in the school district and community. Second is being allotted pantry and work space at FOFC and being recognized as a program of that organization. Third is all of the volunteers provided by the Friends RSVP program – the four other “bag ladies” that work with me each week packing and delivering bags; the drivers that pick up the Food Bank order and Sam’s Club donations; the men who retrofitted space for our own dedicated pantry and the FOFC/Backpack Program finance director. Fourth and most importantly, is the financial support that we’ve received – grants from the Globe Community Fund, Capitol City Sunrise Rotary, Franklin Savings Bank, N.H. Charitable Foundation Hoyt Fund and Lincoln Financial and contributions from many local businesses and individuals! And lastly, the business advice that we have received from our dear friend and supporter, Mike Dunn, CEO of Duncraft.

Coordinating all of this for the past two years has been nothing but rewarding beyond belief and enjoyable to the utmost. It has filled me with such satisfaction knowing I’ve been a small cog keeping a larger set of gears in motion producing happier, healthier, more productive children – something of value for certain! I am so glad I answered the call to volunteer for RSVP!

(Fran Philippe is an RSVP volunteer and coordinator of the Backpack Program.)

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