DECATUR — One year ago, Millikin University students approached the Rev. Stacy Brohard at Good Samaritan Inn with an idea.
They wanted to send backpacks of food home on weekends with Dennis School students who might not get enough to eat otherwise.
“I'm excited and honored today to share with you the success of a partnership that is near and dear to my heart,” said Professor Mary Garrison, who teaches social work at Millikin and is the adviser to the student group.
The group began planning the project in 2015. Knowing that low-income students who depend on school breakfasts and lunches might go without regular meals on weekends, the Millikin students raised over $9,000 last year to provide 80 students with a backpack of food each weekend of the school year. The items are chosen carefully to be easy to prepare, and the first package of the year includes a can opener, because there might not be one at the child's home. Kids get seven meals and snacks to get through the weekend.
The food, in grocery bags, is discreetly placed in a student's backpack on Fridays so the child isn't singled out in front of other students.
Good Samaritan Inn, Decatur Public Schools Foundation, Crossing Healthcare and Central Illinois Food Bank joined with the student group to provide the food, and the group is asking for donations again this year to continue their work. They need $9,500 and have raised $700 so far, said Millikin senior Morgan Huffman.
They prefer cash donations to food items, so that they can pack the backpacks with consistent and similar items each week. Checks can be made to the DPS Foundation and sent to 101 W. Cerro Gordo St., Decatur, IL 62523.
“The Big Blue Backpack program has made a significant impact on our students at Dennis Lab School,” said Abby Steele, the school's social worker. “The backpacks allow students who may have had food insecurity issues in the past make it through the weekend. This program has been a great success and I'm looking for it to be a model to other schools as a way to support their families and students.”
By providing the kids with food to get through the weekend, said Millikin senior Katie Posch, the group helps those kids have better health and greater academic success. They come to school on Monday more ready to learn.
“This program benefits the children at Dennis in so many ways, including their attendance rates, health, academic success in confidence in self,” Posch said. During the first year, 21,600 food items were provided for 27 weekends.
Four of the group's officers – Posch, Huffman, Leslie Chandler and Ashley Woods – are studying for careers in human services, Garrison said. The fifth, Brooke Brasile, is studying art therapy.
“Some of the problems, or issues, don't want to necessarily call them problems, are too big for one organization to work on by themselves,” Brohard said.
The students had a plan and just needed a place to work out of, Brohard said.
“The combination of working together really hit this solution head-on, and for us it's been flawless,” Brohard said. “They made a great presentation to our board, and our board could not say 'no' to these students because they were so well-organized. I went home that night thinking if only all our employees were that way, it would be amazing.”