Backpack buddies fills satchels and stomachs on weekends

HILTON HEAD ISLAND—Many people look at a backpack as just another school supply, but for some kids it means not going hungry.

Each Friday during the school year, more than 200 local public school children receive backpacks full of simple, nutritional food to get them through the weekend, thanks to an ecumenical project known as Backpack Buddies.

Weekend backpack programs were started about 15 years ago by the national outreach Feeding America, after teachers, school nurses and social workers reported children coming in tired and hungry on Monday mornings after going without enough food over the weekend.

St. Francis by the Sea Church is one of three packing sites for Backpack Buddies on the island. Dozens of volunteers from the parish and community meet there on Thursdays to fill bags with donated food provided by Sysco, an area distributor.

Debbie Dunlap, a member of St. Francis, organizes the effort. She said each backpack contains nine items that don’t need refrigeration.  Regular offerings include canned pastas such as spaghetti and meatballs or ravioli, puddings, cold cereal, granola bars, fruit cups and fresh fruit. After the bags are filled, drivers pick them up and deliver them to the Center for Creative Arts, where teachers distribute them to children on Fridays.

Volunteers don’t know the names of the children and families they serve, but on average they pack about 65 bags per week. They will pack their first round of backpacks for this school year on Sept. 25.

Dunlap said most of the kids who receive the staples eat free or reduced lunch during the week and are referred to the program by social workers. Parents must give permission for their children to take the food.

“I used to be a teacher in Kentucky, in an area with a lot of poor kids, so I know how important it is to help children in need — they’re our greatest resource,” Dunlap said. “It’s a joy working on this with the volunteers.”

Sheila Gallahue started the ministry at St. Francis in 2010 along with fellow parishioner Connie Shelford. They attended a public meeting about the chronic but often hidden hunger problem on the island, and then asked Father Michael Oenbrink, pastor, if they could use space at the church for a backpack program.

“A lot of people think of Hilton Head and don’t think there is anyone homeless here, anyone poor or any children going hungry — it’s a shocker when they find out,” Gallahue said.

Recent surveys have shown that more than 52 percent of elementary school children on the island are eligible for free and reduced lunch.

Gallahue and Shelford raise funds for the program by applying for grants and spreading the word about Backpack Buddies to as many people as possible.

It costs only about $170 to provide food for a child every weekend during the school year, she said.

“It’s so nice to be able to give back and to know someone is benefiting by the bit of work we do,” Gallahue said. “No one wants to think of children being hungry, but they’re all around us and we often don’t even see it. This is a wonderful program because it does an awful lot of good for a lot of people.”