Big Blue Backpacks Press Conference

Mary Garrison, Millikin professor of social work, speaks at the Big Blue Backpacks press conference Friday at the Good Samaritan Inn as, from left, Joycelyn Venantwerp, Keith Creighton and Abby Steele look on. 

DECATUR — Abby Steele notices a difference among students at Dennis Lab School with the weekend food bags provided by Big Blue Backpacks.

“You see especially in the younger kids, like when they see those bags coming around, and you see that excitement,” said Steele, the school social worker. “They're going to come to school a little more refreshed, a little more prepared, to hit the ground running Monday morning.”

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Big Blue Backpacks is a student-run organization at Millikin University that provides over-the-weekend nourishment. Food is purchased through support of private donors and local agencies in the community. Members put the bags together every Wednesday at the Good Samaritan Inn.

The program has provided meals for over 500 students since it began in 2016. Backpacks filled with two breakfast meals, three dinners, two snack items and products for hygiene go home with students every Friday.

Big Blue Backpacks' goal is to provide seven weekend meals for 80 students over 27 weeks during the academic year, something not possible without the hard work of the students members, said Mary Garrison, Millikin professor of social work and Big Blue Backpacks faculty adviser.

“There's a need, and I think first and foremost the need is the students at Dennis Lab School need to have access to food,” she said. “And I think as an educator, the need for my students to do something that they can really take a hold of and have ownership of, and use to learn from as they become those amazing helping professionals they're going to become.”

Garrison said there is discussion of expansion in the future, but they want to primarily focus on Dennis Lab. She said it takes about $8,500 to $9,000 to provide 80 children with weekend meals each year.

“A lot of the students aren't necessarily from our community, but I think during their time at Millikin, they're becoming a part of our family in the community and I think there's a lot to be said about that,” Steele said.

“It's a great example for our own students about creating programs that have an impact and change the world,” said Keith Creighton, Dennis Lab assistant principal. 

Millikin and Dennis Lab have an ongoing partnership, said Garrison, where Millikin students do service learning and internships and Dennis Lab students get college preparation.

Big Blue Backpacks co-leader Joycelyn Venantwerp said she joined for her first year because she wants to work with children someday. She is in her junior year studying psychology and human services.

“Our goals are to find more people to come in for the next year, we have a lot of graduation seniors this year that have been awesome, so they'll be able to help teach us what to do and how to run it smoothly,” she said.

Said Garrison: “We're supporting their learning, and it's important for my students to see how hunger can impact and where hunger is. We have this issue across our community and across our nation.”

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