DECATUR – Abby Steele can see the difference Big Blue Backpacks make in Dennis School students' lives, especially on Mondays.
“When students are hungry, oftentimes you see that shown in their behavior,” Steele said. “There's an increase in negative behavior, and oftentimes they're very tired. If they don't get breakfast at home, they get it here at school and that helps, but Mondays are oftentimes a tougher day than the rest of the days of the week, because they might not have had those opportunities to eat over the weekend. You definitely see it, and it's generally played out in their behavior.”
Big Blue Backpacks began three years ago when a student in Mary Garrison's human services class at Millikin University heard about similar programs in other schools, several in Decatur schools which are sponsored by the community's churches and in some cases, other Decatur students.
“We took a year to really think about how we wanted our backpack program to look,” Garrison said. “We didn't know what was out there and what we needed to do.”
Her students researched to find the answers and the program began in September 2016. It's all student-led, Garrison said. She and the Good Samaritan Inn director, the Rev. Stacey Brohard, act as advisers. She said hers is the easiest job because the students do all the work.
“We provide seven meals over a weekend, each weekend of the school year, to 80 students who are chosen by the staff at Dennis Lab School,” Garrison said. “We do not know who those students are and we don't want to know who those students are. We just want to provide food for those students to make sure they're getting the nourishment they need to improve academics.”
Dennis, Good Samaritan, the Central Illinois Food Bank, Aldi and Crossing Healthcare, which helped the students figure out nutritional needs for the kids, are all partners in the project, Garrison said. This weekend was the first distribution of the school year.
Millikin students pack the bags and leave them with teachers for kids to pick up on their way home for the day on Fridays, and if a student is self-conscious about taking a bag home, it's quietly placed in his or her locker, where the student can place it in a backpack discreetly. That's something the older students are more likely to request than the younger ones, Garrison said.
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The group is asking for donations to buy food and they prefer cash, said Millikin student Emily Bauwens, because they buy certain items for the bags that they know kids will eat and can easily prepare. In the first bag of the school year, each child also receives a can opener, which can be replaced if needed during the year. Through trial and error, the group has learned that some items are too difficult to make, such as Jell-O, or kids don't like some items, like tuna.
Sponsorships are available, said Millikin student Blake Carmichael, though donations of any amount of cash are welcome. Those can be made out to the Decatur Public Schools Foundation with “Big Blue Backpacks” in the memo line.
Over the last two years, the group has distributed 43,000 food items over 27 weekends, said Millikin student Jessica Joyner.
“This program benefits the children at Dennis in so many ways, including their attendance rates, health and academic success and confidence in self,” Joyner said.
“I look forward to many more years of partnership,” said interim Dennis Principal Paul Ranstead.
Good Samaritan Inn's focus is on hunger and homelessness, Brohard said, but branched into education as well because the organization knows that if kids aren't properly nourished, they're not going to learn.
“We do our best at Good Samaritan to reach out as far as we can to be able to work on the issue of hunger, but sometimes we lack on the families on weekends due to transportation issues and a lot of different reasons,” he said.
When the Millikin students approached him about Big Blue Backpacks, he said, it sounded like one way to help alleviate that lack.