Volunteers pack backpacks to help fight child hunger

By: Kara Szymanski | Shelby - Utica News | Published August 30, 2019

 Volunteers, including Sterling Heights Police Chief Dale Dwojakowski, spend about an hour packing backpacks with six meals for children to eat on a weekend.

Volunteers, including Sterling Heights Police Chief Dale Dwojakowski, spend about an hour packing backpacks with six meals for children to eat on a weekend.

Photo provided by Bob Maynard

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UTICA — A group of volunteers in Utica hopes to make child hunger a thing of the past throughout Utica Community Schools.

Blessings in a Backpack-Utica, a volunteer-based group, has been working to fight child hunger in the local community for six years.

The group is made up of volunteers from around the area who have come together to help pack backpacks with meals for children who do not have adequate access to food during the weekends.

The group currently helps three schools in the Utica Community Schools district: Dresden, Havel and Harvey elementary schools. With appropriate resources, they hope to expand to a fourth school in the near future.  

Bob Maynard, a committee member of Blessings in a Backpack-Utica, said there are currently a few schools that have students who qualify for the program.

“Last school year, we provided approximately 66,000 meals across the three schools currently served. Each school qualifies the students participating in our program. We do not know names or ages of the children. The backpacks with six meals for a weekend are uniquely numbered for distribution by the schools on Friday to the right child,” said Maynard.

Volunteers help to move food from Meijer once a month to Bemis Junior High, where volunteers meet for one hour per week during the school year to pack the backpacks with six meals of nonperishable food items and distribute them on Fridays during the school year to the three schools they currently support.

“Volunteers let us know when they can help by using SignupGenius. Some organizations like MNP, Home Depot, Sterling Heights police, plan ahead to send a group of volunteers. Packing is accomplished on Wednesdays at Bemis Junior High on 19 Mile Road in Sterling Heights beginning at 4:15 p.m.,” said Maynard.

On Mondays, the backpacks are returned to be refilled for the following Friday. Each backpack contains food items for six weekend meals, such as tuna, peanut butter, macaroni and cheese, pastas, oatmeal, fruit and granola bars, soup and fruit juices.

The first year after the group was formed was spent gathering funds and resources. Dresden Elementary received the first delivery five years ago, and as more resources became available, they expanded to a second school and then a third. The funding and volunteers come from throughout the local community.

There are approximately 8,000 children who qualify to be supported by the Blessings in a Backpack-Utica program. These children receive free or reduced-fee meals through the Utica Community Schools during the week.

Together with appropriate financial and community involvement, the group is looking to do more to feed hungry children in the community.  

Randy Hardy, of Macomb Township, is a local volunteer with Blessings in a Backpack-Utica. He said he has been a volunteer for about three years.

“I think it’s a great program and I am happy to be a part of it. It gives me a source of pride that I can help someone that needs help. I really wish I could do more; I do as much as I can, but wish I could do more,” said Hardy.

He said he was a member of the Shelby Optimist Club when he heard about the program during a presentation that Maynard was giving for the club.

“It was definitely a worthwhile program and something I could do to help the community,” said Hardy.

Recently, Blessings in a Backpack-Utica presented its first Community Service Award to MNP Corp., of Utica.

For the past three years, MNP has partnered with Blessings in a Backpack-Utica to provide weekend food to the qualifying children at one of the elementary schools. MNP has agreed to continue its partnership for the 2019-20 school year.  

MNP’s involvement goes beyond its financial gift to sponsor the program. MNP employees often help at the weekly packing sessions, and an MNP team member actively participates on the Blessings in a Backpack-Utica steering committee.

Maynard said that the program is looking to expand and hopes to see members of the community who might want join in on the fight.

“It would be wonderful if there were no children in a community like ours without consistent access to food. Unfortunately, I was surprised when I learned the large number of children, right here, going hungry on weekends during the school year. The benefits of providing six meals goes far beyond the hunger,” he said.

“Without hunger, grades improve, classroom and human interaction improves, interest in learning more develops, and we can help to break the cycle of poverty right here in this neighborhood,” Maynard said.

He said they are always looking for monetary donations, volunteers and individuals to join the steering committee.

“As resources allow, we hope to add additional schools in the future,” said Maynard.

For more information about the program or to volunteer, visit blessingsinabackpackmi.org/utica or call (586) 566-8855.

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