A new project is providing area children with food for the weekend.
Launched in August, Project Backpack is spearheaded by Shepherd of the Lakes Lutheran Church.
Each week, volunteers meet at Ruby’s Pantry on Oborn Street to fill backpacks with food that is then delivered to Waupaca’s elementary and middle schools on Fridays.
There, children who were identified to participate in the program, receive the backpacks by the end of the school day.
When they return to school on Monday, they bring the backpacks with them so that they can be filled up again.
“People are doing this – doing similar projects throughout the country,” said Bjorn Christensen, a member of Shepherd of the Lakes and the project leader.
A conversation between him and one of the pastors at the church about the number of children in the U.S. living below the poverty level resulted in them seeking information about how many children in the Waupaca School District are at or below the poverty level.
They learned that in this school district, 9 percent are at or below that level.
Since that conversation last spring, the church was able to piggyback off of the methods used by other churches by establishing Project Backpack here in time for the new school year.
Christensen hopes to see youths become involved in the project.
“My passion is kids helping kids,” he said. “I’d like to see sports teams involved where they pack backpacks. Give them the chance to serve.”
When backpacks were packed last week, several students were among the volunteers.
One of them was Chloe Heisler, who along with her mother, Becky, was there to help for the first time.
Eight-year-old Chloe was happy to be helping other children. “It’s very fun,” she said. “It makes me feel happy.”
Christensen said their estimates show that 156 students in the Waupaca School District are eligible for meal assistance.
A total of 170 backpacks were purchased for Project Backpack, and 75 are being filled each week.
District Administrator David Poeschl asked that they pilot the two elementary schools and middle school first to see how it works before considering expansion of the program.
Many local businesses, organizations and churches have become involved in Project Backpack.
Ruby’s Pantry partnered with them, providing space to store food and pack backpacks.
In addition to Shepherd of the Lakes, the project is supported by Victory Church, Chain O’ Lakes Elementary School, Waupaca Learning Center and Waupaca Middle School.
There have been donations from Sara Lee of New London, ThyssenKrupp Waupaca, Dental Associates of Appleton, Wal-Mart Supercenter of Appleton, First National Bank of Waupaca, Torborg’s of Waupaca, Sturm Foods of Manawa, Gary’s Piggly Wiggly of Waupaca, Curves of Waupaca, Hi Style Beauty Salon of Waupaca and Menards of Appleton.
Christensen said other area churches also want to become involved. Those interested in doing so are asked to contact Rev. Dave Martin at Shepherd of the Lakes at 715-258-8061.
Teams made up of between 10 and 12 volunteers pack the backpacks and make sure they are delivered to the schools.
Each of the backpacks contains enough food for two light breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners and snacks to see children through the weekend.
When there are longer weekends during the school year due to school vacations, the plan is to add more food items to the backpacks.
Only a select number of employees in the school district know the names of the children participating in the project to keep it confidential. Parents were first invited by letter to participate.
This means that no one within Project Backpack knows who is participating, unless people decide on their own to identify themselves.
Christensen said people can sponsor backpacks. It costs $351 to adopt one backpack for a year or $36 per month or $9 per week.
Volunteers are needed to pack the backpacks, deliver them, pick up the empty backpacks and to stock the shelves with food at Ruby’s Pantry.
Christensen said if someone donates a bag of food, it is taken to the Waupaca Area Food Pantry.
“Because we can buy in bulk, it is more cost-effective to use money and to build the menu from there. The food will last for the weekend,” he said.
Their goal is to make this project self-sustainable and to expanded it in surrounding communities in the future.
“I think it gives myself and everybody else involved more of a sense of purpose in life by helping out these kids,” Christensen said.