Blessings in a Backpack helps three Aurora schools

Kids at three Aurora schools get a shot of hope every week, thanks to the efforts of Blessings in a Backpack, a national organization founded in 2005.

Today the nonprofit provides weekend food to more than 64,000 elementary school children in 618 schools from 44 states and the District of Columbia. With generous discounts from grocery and other food suppliers, each child can be fed on weekends throughout the school year for just $100 a year per child.

On Wednesday, Kathy Schank, community outreach coordinator for KidsMatter in Naperville, was hard at work with her cadre of volunteers who were packing this week’s meals for distribution Friday morning at an Indian Prairie School District 204 elementary school. Schank said she joined the backpack effort to continue the mission of KidsMatter.

“On our website, we say we want to have resilient kids that say ‘no’ to destructive behavior and ‘yes’ to endless possibilities, and I see this as a way to get kids involved by helping other kids,” Schank said. “We can’t tell kids to be respectful and kind without showing them that behavior. By taking food to other kids and teens and doing it right here, they learn a respectful behavior, and kids who feel good about themselves tend to behave better.”

The backpack meals consist largely of canned goods, including protein, fruit and carbohydrate choices that are easily accessible thanks to pop-top containers. A total of 100 children are being helped at the school where Schank and her volunteers work, and preparing their weekly food supplies takes about 30 minutes to organize and complete.

“We’ll have maybe 10 volunteers one week or as many as 20, and we work in stations,” she said. “We don’t see this as providing a child or his family a complete meal service but rather as a supplement or a bridge.”

Elena Ramos works as a home and school liaison managing the program where Schank works. She has been involved with the program since October and already has seen its impact first-hand.

“I spoke with a parent personally about her son and was talking to her about the need for him to bring his backpack back so we could fill it again,” Ramos said. “She said, ‘oh yes, he forgot it,’ and she also told me she was disabled, and that without the food, there would be no dinner some nights. That showed me how much people depend on it and is an example of how a program like this can really make a difference.”

Sharlene Hammond, of Naperville, worked to pack bags Wednesday. Schank asked for her help last fall. She said her daughter is part of a junior high school KidsMatter program and that she wanted to help another organization that was making a difference for kids.

“I like helping out, and there is a joy in helping others,” she said. “I like coming here to the school and seeing the kids. There is a gym on the other side of the wall where we pack the backpacks, and you can hear the kids yelling and having fun in there. It makes what you’re doing very real.”

Schank has recruited the help of several Naperville high school students to help with her efforts, including Jay Tegge, 18, of Naperville Central, who said he has been active in the program the last three months.

“I needed some volunteer hours for the National Honor Society and a sociology class I’m taking, but I’ve also worked with Mrs. Schank before with PADS,” Tegge said. “I especially have enjoyed helping these elementary kids, and volunteering for something like this makes you feel good, whether the work takes 30 minutes or two hours.”

Naperville North student Austin Hansen, 18, said he has been particularly touched by his volunteer efforts, including his work with Blessings in a Backpack. He also has worked with NaperBridge and as an adviser to KidsMattter, he said.

“I was at a PADS shelter as a volunteer and saw kids that were the same age as my sister, and it brought tears to my eyes,” Hansen said. “It was a humble realization, and when we brought some of the extra food we had from this program over there to this family of five that was there, they were overjoyed to know someone cared about them. I know the Blessings in a Backpack program is doing the same thing here.”