About 60 more Brown County children were able to help feed their families this semester.

One Wednesday in December, 99 backpacks were packed for children to take home from school for the weekend. It’s a practice that teams of volunteers have repeated weekly since the Backpack Program reorganized this summer.

Numbers at each school vary, because some students tend to move around, said steering committee member Jan Swigert. No matter where they are staying, the backpack, containing four breakfasts, four lunches, four suppers and two snacks, is something children can depend on.

In an email update to supporters in November, volunteer Clara Stanley related a story from a teacher about one student: “He holds it so tight to himself all through music class, like carrying his only treasure in the whole world,” she wrote.

That’s the reason the volunteers gather each week: To take care of “their” kids.

It’s also why Brown County Schools has become more involved this semester.

Food Service Director Jason Kirchhofer has heard from parents when a child has left their food backpack at school or didn’t return it to be filled.

“They count on it. A lot of them build that into their food budgets,” he said.

The schools’ support has been huge, steering committee members said. Not only have administrators been contacting the program when they notice a student with a need, BCS also has allowed the use of part of the food service building to accept food donations, store the food and do the packing. Kirchhofer also volunteered to deliver and pick up all backpacks at participating schools each week.

Building it

Nashville United Methodist Church started a backpack food program in 2014 at BCIS, then expanded it to Sprunica Elementary. Nashville Christian Church, St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, St. David’s Episcopal Church and Christianburg United Methodist Church also were supporting a few students in their area schools.Late last spring, a small group of volunteers called a community meeting to see how they could pull together and pull in more help. About 60 people showed up.The Backpack Program now serves students at Sprunica and Helmsburg elementaries, the intermediate school and one at the Brown County Career Resource Center.

Van Buren Elementary still has a separate backpack program supported by area churches.

Ten churches now donate specific foods to fill backpacks at BCS’ food service building each month.

Church of the Lakes is “the green bean church,” said Pastor Jon Lucas.

He sees it as a worthy investment in “our kids” — families living all over the county, and also in their back yard, at Sprunica.

“People view the lakes area as the high end of Brown County, but the truth is that there are families here that struggle,” Lucas said. “There are definitely needs that need to be met.”

His congregation of about 110 people donates about 75 cans of beans each month. Lucas doesn’t know if any of the backpack recipients attend his church, but that doesn’t matter. “What we want to do is reach out to all people, not just our people,” he said.

He came to the volunteers’ gathering in December to learn what was accomplished and what is still needed.

Sustaining it

In December, Kirchhofer estimated 70 backpacks were going out to Helmsburg, and about 15 each to BCIS and Sprunica. Last December, the total among those schools was about 47.Swigert said Brown County Junior High School administrators have expressed interest in getting in on the program.Kirchhofer sees need at the high school, too; 42 percent of students there qualify for free or reduced lunch, and total enrollment at that school is greater than at both participating elementaries.

To meet the need, the program needs more volunteers — to organize, pack and clean up for around an hour once a week; to help with fundraisers; and to help get the program to become self-sustaining.

Though all the food donations have taken pressure of the food budget, the committee is still looking for a church or individuals to commit to donating more items — like canned pasta, Vienna sausages or small bags of cookies or other snacks.

Total expenses are about $4,200 per month.

Volunteers organized two fundraisers this fall: A watermelon festival in September and car-parking in three downtown lots every weekend in October. They made about $2,400.

Another fundraiser, a classical piano concert performed by Stanley, is planned this spring.

Volunteer Marylin Day has been writing grants; they’ve brought in about $3,200 so far. But grants aren’t intended to be used for ongoing expenses, and steering committee members are working on growing an endowment at the Brown County Community Foundation.

Of Day’s grants, $2,600 was just to replace backpacks.

Swigert told the story of one student who had moved four times since school started. He didn’t return his backpack to be filled again because he didn’t know where it was.

The group sees no sense in penalizing a child for circumstances beyond their control.

Their motto: “No child deserves to go to bed hungry.”

How to help

Volunteer: Contact coordinator Donna Niednagel at 812-988-6865 or dniednagel@comcast.net.

Donate food: Contact coordinator Linda Todd at 812-287-2489 or ljtodd@gmail.com.

Raise money: Contact coordinator Marylin Day at 317-431-1989 or mikeandmarylin@gmail.com.

Support the endowment: Direct contributions to the Brown County Community Foundation for the Backpack Program fund at P.O. Box 191, Nashville, IN 47448.

Author photo
Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.