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Blessings in a Backpack program helps 39 Kennedy students stay fed

By: Joshua Gordon | Woodward Talk | Published February 9, 2016

 As part of the Ferndale Blessings in a Backpack program, bags that volunteers had filled with food at the school wait to go home with students.

As part of the Ferndale Blessings in a Backpack program, bags that volunteers had filled with food at the school wait to go home with students.

Photo by Donna Dalziel

FERNDALE — Through several fundraising efforts, the Ferndale Blessings in a Backpack program was able to raise $14,000 before the new year, allowing the program to kick off at Kennedy Elementary School in January.

For $100, a student can go home with a bag full of meals for the weekend throughout the whole school year as part of the Blessings in a Backpack program. In the Ferndale School District, about 61 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch.

Kennedy second-grade teacher Lindsay Gonska observed the Blessings in a Backpack program while she taught in the Royal Oak School District, and then recognized a need when she became a teacher in Ferndale three years ago.

More than 51 percent of the  district’s elementary student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch, or around 550 kids, and at Kennedy that number is 142, Gonska said. Thus, the $14,000 was enough to start the program at Kennedy.

“In every school district, it is incredible how many students are on free and reduced lunch, and at Kennedy alone there are 142 kids who need that help,” Gonska said. “A lot of kids are impacted by a lack of food, and we don’t want a kid to go hungry when we can make a difference.”

Gonska said it would cost about $170,000 to give a weekend backpack to every eligible kid in the district. The goal, she said, is to expand to Roosevelt Elementary School in the near future, followed by Ferndale Middle and High School and the early childhood programs.

Fundraising efforts in 2015 included an event at Dino’s Lounge where adults were able to partake in children’s games to raise money, donation jars set up around the district, and an online fundraising site. The Kennedy PTA also donated $2,000 to the efforts.

In the future, Gonska said, Ferndale will work with the Royal Oak Blessings in a Backpack program to host joint fundraising events to bring in as many patrons and donations as possible.

“It was absolutely incredible, as it takes a village to do this, and that is what we are,” Gonska said of the fundraising efforts to get the program started. “I am so blown away by the Ferndale community. I have never worked in a district like this before, where everybody, including staff, kids, parents and even community members who don’t have kids in the district show an interest.”

At Kennedy, 39 students have opted to participate in the program so far. Gonska said permission slips are sent home for the parents to sign, and when they are returned, the student starts to get a bag every weekend.

The bags are packed every Wednesday by volunteers — one group in the afternoon and one after school. On Feb. 3, Superintendent Blake Prewitt took the opportunity to help pack the bags.

Prewitt said that not only does the Blessings in a Backpack program help students in need, but it also helps educate the entire student body about lending a helping hand.

“We have families and students who have needs, and this program helps fulfill a need that helps families all over the district,” he said. “For the students in our building, part of their education is learning you should be helping people and be a good citizen. You should always look to help other people, and this is just a great program to help people and advocate character education.”

As Gonska and her team of volunteers look to expand the program starting next year, she said any help is welcome, whether it is a monetary donation or volunteering to help at events and packing bags.

“We have all these different varieties of people coming in and trying to make the best out of this situation,” she said. “People from all walks of life have come in, including (National Honor Society) students who come in to help, and it is just absolutely cool seeing everyone come together.”

For more information on the Ferndale Blessings in a Backpack program, visit www.blessingsinabackpackmi.org/ferndale.