“Friday afternoon until Monday morning is a long time not to eat.” Elementary School Counselor Suzanne Howe says this is true for many children in the Northeastern York School District.
When seniors from Country Meadows of Leader Heights in south York learned about hungry children living locally, they took action. Determined to be part of the solution to end students’ hunger, seniors worked with campus chaplain, the Rev. Dennis Hamsher, to find ways they could help.
Hamsher teamed with Howe to identify opportunities for residents to help needy students. Howe says that for many students, the lunch they are served at school may be one of the only meals he/she receives all day, and might have very little to eat over weekends when school is not in session. To combat this issue, the duo developed a Weekend Backpack program which provides backpacks filled with “kid-friendly” nutritious food items such as cereal, nutrition bars, apple sauce, fruit juices, pretzels and fruit cups to students who qualify for free or reduced lunch programs.
Country Meadows residents embraced the program, raising funds by selling homemade candy, baked goods, flowers and holiday luminaries. They’ve also held book sales, festivals, fine dining events, fashion shows and many other fundraising activities. To date residents have raised more than $20,000 to purchase food to fill backpacks.
According to Hamsher, “It all began by sharing a need with the seniors and then getting out of the way and letting them show what they can do.”
No school district funding is used to support the program and all money raised is forwarded to the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank and placed in a specific fund used to distribute food to fill the backpacks.
Since starting the program in 2011 at York Haven Elementary School, the number of children served by the program has grown. Originally offered in just one elementary school, the program has expanded to support five schools in the district and provides backpacks to more than 200 students, with more than 550 children impacted by the program. In 2016, more than 2,600 backpacks were distributed to needy families.
“I was a nurse for 40 years, so it just came naturally for me to help people, and I’m also a Christian,” says resident, Virginia Morris. “It means everything. I never knew there was so much hunger in our area.”
The children receiving the food are thankful. One child wrote in a note, “Thank you for giving us the food that we never ate before. We try everything that [we get.]”
“This would not have been possible without the connection with our dedicated residents,” says Hamsher. “Feeding children to give them the opportunity to be healthy, grow strong, be ready to learn and to not be hungry, is no small task.”
Howe says “I cannot thank you enough for all the things you do to make this possible. It makes me think when I retire I’ve got a bar set very high because you have shown that retirement doesn’t mean you quit.”