By: Charlene Adams
The Village Reporter
Backpack Buddies was started approximately five years totally off of donations by director Paulette Baz, Principal at Park Elementary School, to address kids’ hunger issues returning to school after the weekend. She joined forces with teacher Chris Elliott and Nurse Charlene Blankenship and the rest as they say is history.
This program has truly helped families that fall through the cracks in the system and has proven to be very successful in increasing attendance in the program’s first full year and spiked even more the second year especially on Fridays and Mondays. This program serves 185 students in the district with the district being at or above 50% free or reduced meals.
Students who were sent home with backpacks on Friday returned to school Monday ready to go and looking forward to learning. Applications actually go out to every family at the beginning of the school year and again at the start of the second semester in January and encompasses all students in grades Pre K through 12.
All backpacks include enough for 2 breakfasts, 2 dinners that are kid friendly and easy to prepare plus a family meal along with healthy snacks, fruits and vegetables. On long weekends extras are sent home like peanut butter and jelly, cereal and dinner kits. On holiday breaks, they make sure families have a holiday meal or are signed up with a local group to make sure they will have a dinner.
Nurse Charlene Blankenship does most of the shopping by utilizing coupons and searching for deals to help cut costs. This is all done on her own time and she researched other similar programs at Toledo Public Schools and Defiance schools to see how they ran them which snowballed in to her masters research and then put the presentation together to present to The Rotary for financial backing and other donations.
Block Communications gave grants to purchase backpacks through Land’s End that offer guaranteed replacement when new ones are needed. The community support is overwhelming especially with The Swanton Church of The Nazarene and Pastor Harry Ratliff becoming more involved. St. Richard does a food collection for Advent.
A young lady named Riley Bellner had a birthday party several years ago as a 4th grader and, in lieu of gifts, requested donations for Backpack Buddies. Also there are many teacher, parent and student volunteers and lots of community support which involves sending in coupons and checks to help with buying groceries.
There are regular volunteers that help unload groceries and pack them then the Interact aka Rotary High School students pass out the bags to the students on Fridays at the end of the day. Also when inclement weather causes school to be closed on Friday, teachers and staff deliver backpacks to the students homes to ensure they have food for the weekend.
They have two big annual fundraisers which is a task Chris Elliot happily takes on coming up on Saturday, March 12th the Swanton Rotary presents Name That Tune at The Swanton Sports Center. Tickets can be purchased from any Rotary member and they ask that you donate canned goods at the door which then get donated to The Swanton Food Pantry with monetary donations going to Backpack Buddies.
On Saturday April, 9th The Lion’s Club presents Dodge For A Cause a day of competitive dodgeball games between students and teachers and other teams put together from the community with 100% of the proceeds going to Backpack Buddies. The Swanton Foundation will be hosting A Table Of Contents event that in years prior benefited the Swanton Public Library now will benefit Backpack Buddies in the near future as well and The P. S. Food Mart aka Sunoco does a pop tart match which in it’s second year has donated over 2800 pop tarts to the cause.
As it stands they are not currently a 501C but are working to getting that designation. You can help by dropping off non perishable and non outdated food to Park Elementary School or drop off a check or cash. Checks can be made out to Backpack Buddies c/o Swanton Schools. Charlene Blankenship also makes sure personel thank you notes are sent out to everyone that helps in some way. If you or someone you know could benefit from this program please go to the school website where you can fill out forms online or request an application from the school. All information is kept confidential and everyone that participates in the program is assigned a non identifiable number.
Charlene may be reached at