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Churches fill backpacks with food, love

Photo by Donna Campbell/Ann Joyce (left), Jean Philips and Rev. Tom Atkins of First United Methodist Church Brookhaven fill bags with breakfast, lunch and snack items that will be delivered to city and county schools. The Blessings in a Backpack ministy helps feed children on the weekends and school holidays.

Photo by Donna Campbell/Ann Joyce (left), Jean Philips and Rev. Tom Atkins of First United Methodist Church Brookhaven fill bags with breakfast, lunch and snack items that will be delivered to city and county schools. The Blessings in a Backpack minisrty helps feed children on the weekends and school holidays.

Packed along with the individual boxes of breakfast cereal and small cans of soup is a lot of love and blessings.

Organized last year as a mission project for the community, Blessings in a Backpack is the brainchild of Betty Ann Williams. She started it at her church, First United Methodist Brookhaven, where it has continued to grow. But that’s not necessarily a good thing.

When volunteers and church members first started packing bags to give to children who may go without food on the weekends without this gift of groceries, they gave away about 20 bags each week.

By May, they were filling 70 bags.

Thursday, the faithful weekly volunteers — like Virginia and Allen Sparks, Wanda Fernando, Susan Hood and Vicky Swalm — packed 168 bags. Those will  go to students in kindergarten through 12th grade at all of the city and county public schools. The bags are delivered to the school counselors. The volunteers never know who get them.

Williams expects the number of bags they fill to increase again next year.

The national backpack program feeds children in kindergarten through sixth grade, but Williams felt the need was greater here and suggested they take care of all the kids in each family. “We’ve taken it all through high school,” she said.

Schools identify the students who receive the help and give Williams a number. She uses church resources and donations to make sure they have the necessary items to fill the bags.

Each plastic bag is filled with two breakfast items, two lunch items and two snacks.

For the holidays, they pack enough to get the recipient through the two week break. They’ll have 12 of each item, she said.

The bags go to the schools and the counselors distribute them “in the most discrete way possible,” she said.

Williams knows the food they send isn’t enough for a full meal, but it’s hopefully a help. “We hope that this will free up what they have in the house,” she said.

Williams, who works part time in the church office, said she can’t stand the thought of children going hungry when they’re not at school. “We hope that we can make a difference in some lives,” she said.

The volunteers begin their task each week with prayer for the students who will receive the gift.

Susan Hood, who helps fill bags most Thursdays, led the volunteers in prayer.

“We hope that this will be more than just something in their bellies,” she said, “but love in their heart, too.”

Hood’s children are grown but she has a special place in her heart for these children in the program she’ll never meet. “I can’t stand the thought of them being hungry,” she said.

Hood hopes they recognize that the food is an expression of Christ’s love for them. “You just hope they know that somebody loves them,” she said.

To volunteer to pack bags or to donate to the program, call Williams at 601-757-3236.