Backpack program helps kids fight weekend hunger
Mike Berry couldn’t shake the experience.
During a neighborhood walk one day about six years ago, he encountered a girl hurrying to Orchard Avenue Elementary School, tears running down her face, late for class. Berry asked the girl what was wrong, not knowing then that her answer would ultimately change the lives of thousands of students a year in Mesa County.
“She said she was cold and hungry and had to sleep in their car last night,” Berry recalled about the meeting. “God just stabbed me in the heart.”
For a couple years, Berry remembered that exchange, and it prompted him to volunteer at local soup kitchens and to donate to food pantries. But that never seemed like enough, so he found a way to do more.
Now, each Friday afternoon during the school year, 1,200 students in School District 51 receive backpacks filled with food to help them and their families make it through the weekend. The nonprofit Berry and his wife, Debbie, helped create, Kids Aid, benefits students at some local elementary and middle schools.
It is funded by community members and churches and is staffed mostly by volunteers.
While the program is filling a need, Berry still hears the stories from teachers.
One teacher at a local middle school noticed a girl had not worn a new change of clothes in two weeks and noted that she hung out after lunch to find scraps from the garbage to take home on the weekends. Another student who was receiving free breakfast always saved her cereal bar so she’d have something to eat on the weekends. Yet another young boy applauds during classes on Fridays knowing he’ll have food through the weekend.
“I didn’t have an idea of what the need was out there,” Berry said.
Each child signed up for the program receives a backpack. Children bring the bags to school Fridays and the food that is purchased and sorted by volunteers during the week is distributed by teachers and counselors.
Children usually receive a few ready-made and “kid-friendly” meals, such as macaroni and cheese or ravioli. Other items include juice, crackers, peanut butter, applesauce, and sometimes cookies. Food items are nonperishable and prepackaged, and food for each backpack runs about $5. The backpacks are $3.50.
The program is outgrowing a food-storing operation out of a back room where Berry works at Colorado West Financial Advisors, 372 Ridges Blvd. At the start of the new year, the program will be able to store food in a climate-controlled warehouse, thanks to a donation by local company Ametek Inc.
Berry said he never worried too much about how to continue operations for the endeavor, and community members have filled in the gaps. The program celebrates its second year in March.
The program costs $24,000 per month, and thanks to recent fundraisers that brought in $30,000, the program should keep afloat through February.
Berry knows more of a need exists and would like to include students from other schools. For example, 256 students at Chatfield Elementary School could benefit from the backpack meals, but current funding levels don’t allow the school to be added.
“A lot of times we’re feeding the whole family on the weekend,” Berry said. “The kids are the silent victims. They don’t have any advocate if mom or dad aren’t feeding them. People don’t know there’s a problem. It’s a lot bigger than we anticipated.”
While Berry doesn’t directly see the outcome of the effort, the stories he hears are enough. He keeps one thank-you letter close.
“Dear Back Pack Fairy,” says the handwritten letter. “Thank you for giving me the backpack full of food every week. The backpack helps my family because we barely have any food and my family and I are very greatful.”