ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Annapolis resident Lisa Williams remembers noticing her older son, Alloyd, coming home from school one night last fall with an extra backpack. She opened it up and was astonished to find macaroni and cheese, fresh fruit and cans of tuna.
“I was so happy and surprised,” Williams said.
Life had gotten tough for the family and they spent some time living in an Annapolis shelter.
“I lost my job last year and couldn’t find a new one, take care of boys and make rent,” Williams said. “Everything just fell apart.”
Her son had become one of the “Backpack Buddies” at Tyler Heights Elementary School. The program sends elementary school kids home with backpacks full of food on Friday afternoons to keep them from going hungry over the long weekend.
The local program, started last fall, is similar to Backpack Buddies programs around the county. But Tyler Heights Elementary’s program is different: It emphasizes the “buddies” portion of its name by allowing students receiving the bags get to know the sponsors who help fill them.
“Once you see the kids and you see what you can do for that kid, you’re hooked,” said Kim Stanger, an interventionist at Tyler Heights and the staff member who facilitates the program.
One recent Friday, the volunteers looked almost giddy as they greeted each other and got down to work. One sat down to write letters of encouragement to each of the children for the then-approaching state testing.
“I just tell them they’ll do great,” said volunteer Barbara Willis.
The goal is to give the students a better chance at succeedingbecause they’re not concentrating on how hungry they are. Volunteers also hope to give an extra emotional boost to students who might not otherwise get the support to succeed at home.
It’s also a part of the healing process for a group of grieving friends. This past Christmas Eve, Tyler Heights Principal Faye Hamlin Daniel died after becoming ill earlier in the year. The idea is to keep the program and her legacy alive. Brenda and Terry Schoener came up with the idea with Daniel and her husband Bill during a boating trip last summer.
“Faye brought this in. She was beautiful inside and out and she was the one who realized this need,” Willis said.
What she saw, Willis said, were students who were coming to school on Monday mornings who looked weak, exhausted and unable to focus until well into the school day. Daniel realized this was because many of the children on the free- and reduced-meals program didn’t have access to enough nutrition over the weekend, Willis said.
One of those children, a fifth-grade boy named Ezequiel Canales, was Faye and Bill Daniel’s sponsored child. He was devastated when Faye Daniel died. At the service, he spoke in English and Spanish in honoring his former principal.
Bill Daniel still sponsors Ezequiel.
“Mr. Daniel goes out and buys different things in Backpack Buddies and he talks to me,” Ezequiel said. “It is pretty special.”
One recent Friday afternoon, a portable classroom at Tyler Heights Elementary School turned into a small food packaging factory.
Food was piled high on the desks. Into plastic sandwich bags, volunteers stuffed pieces of bread – only 100 percent whole wheat – with individual serving containers of peanut butter, some jelly and little plastic spreading knives.
Carefully following the menu for the backpacks, which includes notes about student allergies, they dropped cans of fortified Ensure, bananas and clementines, instant oatmeal packages and granola bars into the bags.
“We’ve got a broken zipper over here,” one of the volunteers says, lifting up a backpack. There’s a closet of other backpacks to replace it, replies Brenda Schoener, grabbing one of the donated bags, purposely nondescript so they won’t tempt anyone to snatch them.
Schoener has become the center of the Backback Buddies. She was recently honored by the county Board of Education for her efforts.
The food comes from a nearby bulk grocery store Schoener heads to with the weekly shopping list, looking for the best deals – nutritious, mostly nonperishable, nonsquishable food.
The effort isn’t lost on Williams. Her family now lives in a small apartment and with most of her income going to rent, they were trying to stretch food from a church food pantry. It’s food they are grateful for, but it comes with drawbacks.
“There are a lot of people who can’t get to the churches, can’t get to the shelters because they don’t have a car. Sure, you can walk there, but how can you get it back?” Williams said.
Doctors discovered her youngest son Raymond tested high for lead levels and recommend a low-fat diet that is high in fruits, especially orange juice – often foods she can’t afford or get access to. “Churches and shelters aren’t going to give you want you need. They’re going to give you what they’ve got.”
Alloyd’s buddy donated sheets and sponsors worked to track down furniture for the family.
“They’ve not only helped my sons,” Williams said, “they helped me.”
It costs sponsors $25 a month to pay for the program, which needed a group of people willing to commit to sponsoring students, said Terry Schoener.
But the retired pastor from Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church and his wife seem to have a knack for recruiting helpers, from neighbors and friends, to members of the church. “Watch out, we might just put you to work,” Schoener said.
Throughout the week, sponsors drop off in a basket placed on Schoener’s front stoop items they’ve found to share with their students like a book or a small toy. They write their students letters of encouragement and respond to letters the students have written to them about what is going on in school.
Arianna Johnson, a fourth-grade student who dreams of being a doctor some day, said she likes writing to her “backpack grandmas.”
“They’re nice,” she said. She received a new jacket and pants just before her birthday and a big Valentine’s dance and said she immediately ran to write a letter thanking them.
Volunteer Susan Luck’s grandson lives far away and doesn’t need her the same way she feels her Tyler Heights buddy does. When Luck and her husband were told their buddy’s grades were suffering because he needed glasses, they took him out to get a pair. He was shocked by what he could see the first time he put on the glasses, Luck said.
“It’s an immediate reward,” Luck said. “This is hands-on. I see where my money is going.”
They want to expand the program to other schools and figure out a solution for students during the summer when they won’t receive meals at school. “I want to be able to tell those kids by June when they go to the sixth grade, they’ll still be fed,” Brenda Schoener said.
As volunteers have gotten to know the families of their Backpack Buddies, they’ve seen students living in apartments with no furniture or living in shelters and motels. It shows the real need that exists in what most see as an mostly affluent county, she said. “There are pockets of poverty all over Anne Arundel County,” she said. “All Annapolis schools need this and most schools in the county probably need it.”
In Anne Arundel County Public Schools, 19,324 students of about 75,000 students county-wide were eligible for free or reduced-price meals last year.
The mood was infectious on Friday, as volunteers packed up backpacks. One couple hugged their “buddy” who had come to visit. The group has sent blankets and coats home with students after hearing at least one student spent some time sleeping outdoors during the winter. They pack up boxes of food for long breaks from school.
“First it started with the food. Just the food. But then it began ‘Well, what if we put a note in?’ ” Terry Schoener said. It continued to grow as the buddies got more involved in the students’ lives. “It’s like they have these aunts and uncles, grandmas and granddads,” he said.
Luck nearly smothers the boy she sponsors with hugs and compliments. She’s come to think of him as another boy in her family.
“I know he loves the attention, I just know it,” Luck said.
Information from: The Capital of Annapolis, Md., http://www.hometownannapolis.com/
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)