DECATUR – Professor Mary Garrison is a social worker, and in her class at Millikin University, she strives to teach her students that no matter what their job is, giving back to their community in some way is important.

“It's really important for them to understand that no matter where you're going in life, there's a community you live in and you have a responsibility to that community,” Garrison said. “The other piece is how to build a program and work together as a team.

"This is perfect, to just have them do this and figure it out, with my guidance and support.”

Millikin has partnered with Dennis School to create Big Blue Backpacks, which will provide 80 students the equivalent of seven meals to take home with them on weekends as a way to combat childhood hunger.

Dennis Principal Matt Andrews said choosing the children who will receive the backpacks was a group effort among teachers and staff, based on the children's socioeconomic status. Backpacks will also include personal hygiene items like bars of soap and deodorant, because often those are also a significant need.

One of the community partners in this effort is The Good Samaritan Inn, and the Rev. Stacey Brohard, who was at Dennis for the announcement Friday, joked that his role is “to poke holes in their plan.”

By that, he explained, he asked the questions they might not have considered, like where to store the food between weekend distributions, funding and other considerations.

“The teachers and students had a great plan for this program,” he said. “If you ever wanted to see students sweat bullets, you should have seen them give a presentation to my board, but they gave a great presentation.”

Another community partner is the Decatur Public Schools Foundation, which will accept and handle donations toward food purchases. An $80 donation will feed one child for the school year; $800 is a “lunch table,” or 10 kids; $2,000 is 25 kids and $4,000 will help 50 kids.

Donations can be sent to the Decatur Public Schools Foundation in care of Zach Shields, 101 W. Cerro Gordo St., Decatur, IL 62523.

The group has raised about $3,000 so far of an anticipated $10,000 needed for the entire school year, said Tasha Wilson, founding chairwoman of the effort.

Millikin student Trista Smith, a senior studying psychology and human services, said her grandfather, Gary Pridemore of Royal, passed away last year, and she donated money he left to her to the effort. She said it is the sort of plan that was dear to his heart.

Kids began receiving the backpacks Friday, and Andrews said the staff has come up with a discreet way to get the food into their school backpacks so that no one is the wiser.

The college students hope, based on their research, that having the food packs over the weekends will help Dennis students return to school on Mondays rested, well-fed and ready to learn.

Hunger is not only hard on a child's health, but makes it difficult to concentrate and learn, Wilson said.  

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Staff Writer

Education and family reporter for the Herald & Review.

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