Backpack Buddies

Tucked between the hills of Ironton lies a house that looks like any other residence. However, what it contains is worth immeasurable amounts to hundreds of children and families.

This house contains the main operational hub of Backpack Buddies, an organization dedicated to reducing the effects of childhood hunger by providing nutritious, easy-to-prepare food over the weekend to children residing in food-insecure homes in Lawrence County.

Backpack Buddies serves children and families in Lawrence County, Ohio, through its Backpack Program and Emergency Food program. Children and their families are struggling with hunger across the area.

A family of four facing hunger may need 36 additional meals a month simply because they don’t have money to buy enough food. Feeding America states that 84% of the households they serve report buying the cheapest food — typically not healthy food — in order to provide enough to eat.

Backpack Buddies received $10,000 in Capacity Building funds for the 2019-2020 grant cycle. During its 2019-2020 Capacity Building Initiative, the Pallottine Foundation of Huntington awarded 37 local nonprofit organizations with applicable funding. The initiative provides support to health-focused nonprofit organizations for organizational improvement projects.

Backpack Buddies used the awarded Capacity Building grant for a new computer, operational programs (such as QuickBooks), and a new version of the Backpack Buddies website. Initially, they relied on handwritten records of donations, finances, and other internal processes. Now, they are operating more efficiently with streamlined, digital record-keeping.

“It definitely makes it a lot easier,” said Backpack Buddies founder Jodie Hunt. “Before, when we went out to events or people came to us, we had these cards for people to fill out. And then, we would bring them back and store them forever. When we applied for grants, and they asked about events we’ve done, we had to go back and pull those out and count how many. This funding helps us put all of the data in a system, be able to type in what you need, and have the information right there.

“What we have been able to purchase would take away a lot of funding for our food. I just can’t rationalize that in my mind. For anyone who is looking for a little extra help, this grant has been a game changer for us and will help take us to the next level.”

The program’s initial website was basic, with minimal information that didn’t include updated event information or have a mobile-friendly platform. Hunt envisions the new website will establish easier ways for online event registration, and provide access to event information, outreach to other programs, and volunteer and donor opportunities. She said she also wants the website to be easy to find and navigate for those in need.

Backpack Buddies started in October 2012 after Hunt realized the need for supplemental food and other items for students at her daughters’ school.

“It just breaks your heart,” she said. “As we would go to events with my girls, I kept thinking, ‘There has to be something that we could do to help these kids.’ I really just prayed about it, and I knew there was something that I needed to do, but I didn’t know what it was. Over a year or so, it was continually on my mind, and I started to work with the school to volunteer. Then, I really got to see what the need was, and still is, which is basic necessities, like food and clothing.

“You would see them, and they wouldn’t look like the other kids would look. It really started to tug at my heart, so I called the school, and said, ‘Hey, I have this idea I’ve been thinking about. Do you think it’s something we could work together on?’’’

The rest is history. As Hunt’s school contact described student needs, the concept of the program crystalized, and Backpack Buddies officially commenced. At first, 25 volunteers brought the food items to the school and packed each backpack. The number of volunteers — and the need — grew exponentially after that. Now, the program has an excellent reputation for dependability and consistency. It provides weekly food and other items to 356 students in 17 schools in Lawrence County. Backpacks are delivered across the county every Thursday.

“That relationship that we have built with the schools really goes both ways,” Hunt said. “They feel really confident in us that we are going to supply what they need, and they help us with food drives. I feel like we have created a really good collaboration with all of the schools and partnerships with people in the community who know us and what we do.”

In addition, Backpack Buddies offers families access to an emergency food pantry anytime they need food. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, Backpack Buddies offers meals for families in need. In 2019, 175 Thanksgiving meals were distributed. The Secret Santa program also ensures that students have presents during the holidays. Other programs, including a mobile pantry, supplement students’ needs during the summer.

Backpack Buddies uses financial contributions, grants, fundraising, events, and other income streams to purchase nonperishable food and also relies on food and clothing donations from the community. Examples of food include ramen noodles, granola bars, pudding cups, macaroni and cheese, and more. The goal is to provide children with food they can easily open and prepare themselves. The program can feed one child weekend meals for a month with a $12 contribution. The clothing closet is continuously open.

One of the schools offers a hygiene closet, because many students do not have running water at home and use shower facilities at school. Backpack Buddies provides towels, washcloths, soap, shampoo, conditioner, and other essential items.

One event provided students an opportunity to “shop” for items at their own version of a store. The students were able to purchase a certain number of items they were able to select themselves.

“I thought it was really good for them,” Hunt said. “Most of them didn’t even know what size they wore. You could tell that they had never actually gotten to go shopping on their own. It’s really good for kids to get out and experience that because they don’t have the ability to pick out what they need. A lot of times, they get hand-me-down stuff. We give out only new items. I think it’s important for every kid to know that they’re getting something new that’s theirs. It’s not a hand-me-down and they can go back to school feeling like any other kid. I think that gives them confidence to face the day. I feel like some of them, in the situations they’re in, don’t stand a chance, and this helps them.

“You get to see the joy that comes over them. A lot of them say, ‘Can I put it on right now? Do I have to give it back? Can I put my backpack on? Can I take the tags off so I can put my name inside it for school?’ To see those kids, have those moments and know that they’re important and that someone cares about them is really fulfilling.”

Volunteers also come away with life-changing experiences and viewpoints.

“One little girl in sixth grade who volunteered said, ‘I’ve always seen a little kid in my class get the bag, but I wasn’t sure what it was or what it was about.’ We were packing the bags, and she just started sobbing. She said, ‘I just didn’t realize what he goes home to. I knew he had a bad home life because you can just tell. I like to just be able to pack a bag for him and know that the bags are going back to my classroom.’ Of course, we were all crying at that point. She’s been back twice and has used her allowance money to buy food.”

Backpack Buddies spreads the word about their programs and needs through Facebook, newspaper articles, and word of mouth.

“We do continue to grow and meet people who have helped us so much already, to get things we would never be able to get to improve what we do,” Hunt said. “First and foremost, we want to make sure we get the food and clothing we need, and then, everything else is a bonus. It’s more than I ever could have imagined it would be. I love this. This is what I do. It’s really important to me, and I want to make sure we continue to help kids.”

Learn more about Backpack Buddies by visiting their Facebook page.