A program that provides food for students to eat over the weekend is seeing its numbers increase on a weekly basis.
“It’s growing by about five backpacks per week,” said Rev. Dave Martin, the missions pastor at Shepherd of the Lakes Lutheran Church in Waupaca.
The church began the project in 2010 after learning how many children in the Waupaca School District were living at or below the poverty level.
Called Project Backpack, it is among the programs that are in place throughout the area to help low-income families.
Since the program began a year ago, other area churches and groups have joined the effort – thus increasing the number of people volunteering to pack the backpacks each week.
Initially, Project Backpack was offered to students in Waupaca’s elementary and middle schools.
This year, it expanded into the high school and alternative school and also into the Weyauwega-Fremont School District.
Martin said the average number of students receiving backpacks is 140. “We’re covering 10 schools in two districts,” he said. “It is growing quite rapidly.”
Their goal is to move into a new school district each year.
“Next year it will be based on where is the greatest need,” he said.
The program has received both food and monetary donations. “We always need money,” Martin said, “because we want to sustain the program.”
Donations made out to Project Backpack should be mailed to the project at 153 County Road QQ, Waupaca. Those who give a donation will receive a letter thanking them and serving as their tax deductible receipt.
Martin said there are two areas where they could use more help.
More volunteers are needed to relabel and repack bulk items into individual food items. They also need volunteers to deliver filled backpacks to the schools and pick up empty ones during the day.
Those interested in helping, may contact him at 715-258-8061, ext. 203.
In the Waupaca School District, other efforts also continue.
Susan Davenport, principal of Chain O’ Lakes Elementary School, said teachers are teaching students, and often times parents, coping and resiliency skills to help them deal with less than ideal conditions in their lives.
She said that for many years, Chain O’ Lakes Elementary has held a food and gift project around the holiday time for needy families. An increased number of families are receiving items, Davenport said.
John Erspamer, principal of Waupaca Learning Center, said ththere are programs in place to provide school supplies and backpacks to students who need them.
The school has a clothes closet, and there is information available at the school about community support resources that are available.
Erspamer said the school’s social worker has a $200 donation fund to be used for miscellaneous items, such as test fees, cab fare for conferences and materials for special classes. Goodwill vouchers are also available for emergencies.
In the school district, the social worker also coordinates Santa’s Closet for low-income families, as well as providing information on resources available to homeless families.
At Waupaca Middle School, Principal Ben Rayome said, “We are working at adding time to focus on the academics. PIE (prevention, intervention, and enhancement) time is meant to give students instruction at their levels to bring low-end kids to grade level, keep the middle kids at grade level and give high-end kids opportunities to expand their learning.
“Each of these allows students of poverty to see how they can make a difference in their education. We focus on building relationships, which gives all students a desire to do better in all their academic areas.”
In the Weyauwega-Fremont School District, a school-based donation center called Fashion Forward opened last January.
“We have several families who use it quite regularly,” said Renee Hunkins, a family and consumer education teacher in the district and the adviser of its chapter of Family Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA).
In the fall of 2010, Hunkins attended a conference with her students. Although the students were supposed to dress up for the conference, two of them did not.
Hunkins happened to hear the adviser of a different FCCLA chapter make a comment about it, and that bothered her.
Soon, plans were being made to open a donation center at the school in a storage room.
One young man was particularly in need of clothes this school year.
Hunkins said he had been in foster care but, upon turning 18, was kicked out of the home by the foster parents. He was homeless for a time. A senior at the high school, he is now living with a different family.
Hunkins said there are other families in situations where one parent is no longer working, and their children need clothes.
Often, these families bring in clothes that no longer fit their own children, wanting to make an exchange for what they are receiving.
Typically, children receive clothing from Fashion Forward in one of two ways.
“Usually, it is a teacher that knows there is a need and will ask to get a particular size of clothing,” Hunkins said. “Other times, a teacher will bring the student down during lunch. They do it discreetly.”
Fashion Forward currently has many items for teens and adults. She said there is always a need for clothing for elementary-age children, because they wear out their clothes.
Hunkins said in addition to the clothes they receive, there is a women’s group from an area church that gives Fashion Forward monetary donations.
“If there is something we need and don’t have, we can go and buy it,” she said. “Another lady makes sets of hats, scarves and mittens.”
Fashion Forward also received 10 pairs of new boots for elementary students, thanks to one family. The family purchased the boots at the end of last winter, when they were on clearance.
Hunkins said those who want to donate items can drop the clothing off at any of the school offices in Weyauwega and Fremont. People may also call her at 920-867-8919.
In her eighth year teaching in the district, she said, “I think there has been quite a shift.”
She is seeing more students in need of food and clothing.
As the FACE teacher for seventh through 12th grade, Hunkins said she often has teens arriving to her classroom hungry.
She pointed out that the students receiving free or reduced lunches, receive set servings. She makes sure to have snacks available for those who are hungry.
When Project Backpack expanded into the district this year, “I know of a couple of kids who asked how they could sign up for it,” Hunkins said.
District Administrator Scott Bleck said open communication with district personnel and families is critical in the attempt to meet the poverty needs of the school community.
“Often, potential family resources go unnoticed if effective communication lines are not established,” he said.
Noting this year’s expansion of Project Backpack into the W-F School District, Bleck said assistance is being offered to children who need food staples over the weekend.
Hunkins said students see their peers every day at school but have no idea what is going on in their home lives.
She hopes students are learning the importance of being generous by donating to the food pantry and by giving away the clothes they no longer wear.
In the Iola-Scandinavia School District, several organizations help those who are in need.
District Administrator Joe Price said, “Our local Lioness Club donates backpacks for children in need, as well as helps provide a fund for school personnel to purchase winter clothing, boots, etc., to families in need. The Lions Club also provides funds for us to help students in need, which has allowed us to pay for eye exams and glasses for students whose families can’t afford them.”
Price said ongoing efforts in the community to help people struggling financially include food pantries, the Toys for Tots program which provides Christmas toys for children in need, The Waupaca Miracle Tree which provides families with food, gifts and basic living products.
A group of community members organized and put on a tea, which raised money to help the school district pay for winter clothing, boots and shoes for children in need, he said. This effort is coordinated confidentially with the elementary school counselor.
Price said area churches provide free dinners and food baskets for families in need – both at Thanksgiving and at Christmas.