The tough economy can be grueling for working parents struggling to put food on the table, and when Gifts of Love realized that anxiety was manifesting in Farmington Valley students, said Chris Napierski, volunteer and outreach coordinator, the Avon non-profit wanted to help.
So, Gifts of Love started the Weekend Backpack Program, which Napierski, 33, oversees, five years ago to provide food for those students to eat over the weekend.
“Here at Gifts of Love, we had been receiving reports of children who on Friday afternoon were trying to take some of their school lunch home with them because they knew they weren’t going to have food over the weekend,” Napierski said. “We also received reports of certain kids always going to the nurse saying their stomach hurt, but really they were just hungry.... As soon they would have lunch on a Monday and have food in their little bellies, they were a whole new child.”
Gifts of Love Executive Director Diana Goode also said there have been cases of children acting out in school toward the end of the week.
“I think it’s the anxiety of knowing that they’re not going to have anything over the weekend or the anxiety that 'all the other kids have a snack in class and I’m not going to have a snack to bring from home,’ so all the other kids will be eating and they won’t be eating,” Napierski said.
At the beginning, the program was solely at Pine Grove School. Goode said they only stuffed two backpacks. It grew in the district, so she and Napierski prepared the backpacks and delivered them to the schools themselves.
Now the program has grown to serve 94 students on Free and Reduced Lunch in 22 public schools in Avon, Canton, Farmington, Simsbury and, recently, West Hartford. That includes students from kindergarten through high school. This year is the first year high school students have shown significant interest in the program, Napierski said.
“Ever year it grows and grows and we just keep growing with it,” Napierski said.
Volunteers stuff the bags with food on Thursday mornings and other volunteers deliver the backpacks to the schools. Students pick them up at the end of the day every Friday and bring them back empty on Mondays for Gifts of Love to stuff them again.
“We decided that living in Connecticut in the Farmington Valley in the United States of America, there should not be a hungry child,” said Napierski, who grew up in Plainville and now lives in Canton.
The bags include breakfast, dinner, lunch and snack items, such as beef stew and rice, pasta and sauce, ingredients to make a tuna noodle casserole, bags of popcorn, granola bars, oatmeal, peanut butter crackers. Drinks vary by age group, including water bottles, juice boxes for the younger kids, Gaterades for the older kids and seasonal drinks like hot chocolate for the holidays. A lot of the meals come from Foodshare. Local schools, churches and rotary clubs often do food drives for the program, Napierski said.
“I can see immediately the relief a child would see when they get a backpack,” Napierski said.
With three kids of her own, Napierski can understand the importance of helping these families even more.
“Any way we can help the children, it just makes sense to do it,” Napierski said.