Local Rotarians Pack Hundreds of Backpacks Every Month
by Michelle Gehlman-Teeter
It all started with teachers noticing that students’ behavioral issues were much worse on Mondays. Kids were lethargic, not paying attention and acting up. What finally came to light was many students who, during the week benefit from free and reduced lunches at school, have little to nothing to eat over the weekend. By Monday, they are very hungry and tired. To help solve the problem, Rotary Clubs across the country, including Kent, started Backpack Buddies programs in their local area.
The Backpack Buddies Program in Kent has Rotarian and community volunteers meeting once a month to pack hundreds of bags full of food. These bags are then delivered weekly to six elementary schools in the area, along with fresh fruit, and the school counselors pass them out to the students they feel need them.
“We talked to the school district to see which schools had the highest percentage of free lunches when we started a year ago,” said Nathan Box, original organizer of the program in Kent and Rotary President-Elect. “We started with two schools and eight volunteers. Now we are up to six schools.”
Volunteer Debbie Haffner also works with the schools. She said there are a lot of refugee children who have limited services when they are not at school and it really impacts their education.
Harry Williams is in charge of delivering the bags each week. A huge grin on his face, he said that the school staff gets very excited when they deliver the backpacks. Even the kids love helping unload the vehicles when they can. They currently help 212 children monthly.
Seattle Union Gospel Mission gives space for the monthly packing group and for storing the bags until they get delivered in their Kent distribution warehouse.
On Wednesday evening, people poured into the chilly warehouse ready to work, greeting each other with hugs and jokes. There was a crackle of excitement as they got on the complimentary warm gloves and lined up along the two rows of tables.
“We usually get 25- 35 people every month to help. Half are Rotary members and half are from the community,” said Axel Henning, another organizer. “We also get students coming to get their community service hours.”
“Lots of new people are showing up tonight,” commented Williams.
The instructions were doled out and the work began. Bags were opened at one end of the line, and they were slid down the tables like a conveyor belt, getting filled with food the Rotary Club bought from Grocery Outlet. Down the middle were the people who refilled the tables, and at the end were giant boxes on pallets where the bags were carefully stacked and counted.
It was a full house and the bags got packed in an organized frenzy, despite the chill. Work warmed everyone up in no time. There was a cross section of our city working in that warehouse – teens working the pallet jack, kids opening bags and flattening boxes, Grandfathers next to Moms next to preteens filling bags. Dads refilling the tables along with their families.
One group found out about the event on Facebook and decided to bring their kids down to volunteer. Josie Eggerding, a senior at Kentlake High School, found out about the program because her friend’s Dad is in the Rotary Club.
“We do different jobs here each month,” said Eggerding, “It’s a little chilly but it’s fun.”
The project is a funded cause at the Rotary’s annual fundraising dinner. Last year they raised $20,000 for the Backpack Buddies program.
As the activity started to slow down, Rotary Club Director of Community Service Chair Allyson Gregersen said if they got an additional two dedicated delivery drivers, they could probably add two more schools.
A shout rang out, “We’re done! 892 bags!” A cheer echoed through the warehouse. They packed almost 900 bags of food in only 50 minutes.
The next Backpack Buddies packing party is on Wednesday, February 1 at 5:30 PM at the Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission Distribution Center in Kent. For more information, see the Rotary Club of Kent’s website at www.kentrotary.com/index.html.