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When Richmond Sunrise Elementary Social Worker Julie Hyder heard students say they were hungry, didn’t eat over the weekend and teachers began to report the same information, something needed to be done.
“People don’t want to believe there is a hunger problem in Richmond,” Hyder said.
Educators Lisa McCrary and Julie Stevenson put their heads together last spring and, with input from others, came up with a pilot program to help students that may not eat or eat very little over a weekend.
It doesn’t have a definite name yet, but has been called “The Backpack Club,” “Food for Backpacks,” and “Backpack Snacks.” Whatever it is called, the idea is to provide the student with something for two breakfasts, two lunches and a snack. It started in March 2008.
“This has nothing to do with the school district,” said McCrary. “It doesn’t run through district money in any way, and it’s not tax exempt.”
Currently, 17 Dear Elementary students and 20 Sunrise Elementary students receive the food each Friday.
“I could easily do 40 or more backpacks if I had the food to fill them,” Hyder said.
Dear doesn’t use the backpacks, choosing instead to use gallon-sized ziplock bags.
When asked how she picks out the students that will receive the backpacks, Hyder said, “I see them in the lunchroom. They’re not the ones looking around or visiting with their friends. They’re eating. Celery, oatmeal, whatever – they’re not choosy. They don’t turn their nose up at anything that’s served.”
Donations are welcome and may include anything that is “kid friendly,” meaning something they can open and prepare on their own, and doesn’t require a can opener.
“Our only stipulation is that we can’t take anything with peanut butter,” Hyder cautioned. Money donations are welcome at both schools.
As further evidence of hunger at Sunrise, a random and anonymous survey was conducted last year at the third and fifth grade level. One of the questions was: What can we do to make you more successful in school?
“When the people reading those surveys saw the number of times ‘I’m hungry’ was written down, it blew their minds,” said Hyder. “They said, ‘Man, this is a big problem. We didn’t know.’ Now, we do.”
Food will not be sent home over long weekends. Hyder said there is no way to get the food to them, and Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks are even longer.
Currently, Hyder is working with St. Vincent’s de Paul Church, various individuals and teachers to receive donations, as well as relying on the Sunrise Student Council, the RHS Key Club and Gamma Theta Sorority who have pledged donations once a month. Other organizations are encouraged to participate. Hyder says it will take a community effort to keep the program going.
“By the end of last year, we’d spent $2,500,” said McCrary. “This was all from donations. I’ve already spent $600 this year. It’s tight for everyone. Those that can help should. There are plenty of people in this community that have a good income and can ‘give back.’”
“There are more families this year that have approached me needing help than before,” Hyder continued. “They call and ask if I know where they can get money to get their electricity turned on, to pay their water bill, to buy clothes and to get gas for their cars. People are struggling.”
“I believe with all my heart that one day these kids will be adults, and they’ll ‘carry it on,’” said McCrary.
Photo: Sunrise Student Council members stand alongside the ‘pantry’ that provides food to 20 students in their school. Left to right: Abbie Eastep – president, Alexis Johnston – vice-president, Kaytie Salmons – secretary, and Mallory Cole – treasurer. The students help raise money for the pantry through quarterly sucker sales. The students are in the fifth grade. (Photo by Brenda Jensen/The Daily News)