Ivalee Elementary is a small school with a big capacity for giving, especially through their Backpack Blessings program.
Heather Ford, the school’s counselor, has been there for 10 years and started the program three years ago to help ensure that needy children had plenty to eat when they left school for the weekend each Friday.
When Backpack Blessings began, only 20 students received bags of food each week; now, the total is over 50 students.
“I had heard of the program in other communities, and it just kind of caught fire within me to do that for our students here because we have a large number of free and reduced lunch students,” said Ford.
In a school of only 250 students, that large number translates to a significant percentage of kids who qualify for assistance to pay for their lunches. The backpacks help to fill in the gaps over the weekend to ensure that the children in need have at least one snack and one meal per day until they return to school the next Monday.
“It’s great to know that we can take care of them beyond just school hours,” Ford said.
Since Backpack Blessings is not government-sponsored, Ford reached out to the strong church community in the Ivalee, Gallant, and Attalla areas for help filling the 54 bags she gives out every week.
“One of the churches sponsors each month of the year, and some even do two months in a row,” Ford said.
Many of the churches use the program as an opportunity to create a ministry within their congregations, encouraging their youth groups to pack the bags together.
Sometimes, church members even include cards, photos, or invitations to attend church with the two meals and two snacks they pack into each bag.
“This program is such a blessing to us as Christians, and if we can encourage these kids to come to church and get their families to come to church, that’s even better,” said one anonymous church member in the community.
The food goes into gallon-sized freezer bags which will fit in the backpacks of the 54 children served by the program after being delivered to their classrooms by Ford on Friday afternoons.
“I’m the food lady, the present lady, and lately, I’ve been Santa, too,” Ford joked.
Sometimes, the food helps to feed not only the students, but also their families, and is often cooked by the children themselves for younger siblings or older grandparents.
“The comments from kids that come up to me to thank me for the food are so humbling, because in our society, most people just drive through or go out to eat if they’re hungry,” said Ford.
Through Backpack Blessings and the school’s Needy Fund, Ford takes responsibility for the basic needs of children whose families can not always meet them, often using donations to take the kids shopping for coats or shoes.
She said the best reward for her efforts is the appreciation and excitement on the faces of the children she helps, and the knowledge that she is helping them even after they leave school property.
Ford cites 2 Corinthians 9:7, which stresses the importance of cheerful giving, when she talks about Backpack Blessings to churches interested in contributing.
“I think if you give, it should be cheerful and out of love. I always tell the kids that whenever you receive a gift, it’s because somebody loves you.”
Donations to Backpack Blessings are welcome, whether from an individual, a group, or a church. The program will continue to grow, and Ford is working on a method of carrying it through the summer months, so all volunteers for time, money, and space are appreciated.
For information on getting your church involved, connecting with a church that already contributes, or donating as an individual, contact Heather Ford at Ivalee Elementary School at 256-538-9781.