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HARRISON – Backpacks are ubiquitous among all student populations. They are the method by which textbooks, workbooks and homework travel from home to school and back again – hopefully, without the loss of anything essential. And, often, backpacks are also a means to express individuality, fashion or age-related interests: from zebra stripes to neon green, and from video game characters to the latest cinematic blockbusters.
At Hillside Elementary School, as well as at Larson Elementary School, those packs sometimes serve an even larger and more profound purpose – as a weapon to be used in waging war on student hunger. One of the largest obstacles faced by students in the Harrison Community Schools system is hunger: hunger that gnaws and growls, preventing a child from obtaining the nutrition needed to grow healthfully, and making nearly impossible the ability to be attentive or to concentrate on the topic at hand. All things essential to learning.
In the past there has been something of a stigma attached to being a student who “gets free/reduced lunch or breakfast” and thus caused some students to forego those meals so as not to be revealed to their peers. To address that issue, HCS has instituted free breakfast for all students. All students. Period.
Unfortunately, food need does not stop at the doors of the school – many of these students also are hungry at home – so, in an effort to keep them on track, schools have instituted backpack programs. Children who face hunger are sent home for the weekend with bundles of food in their backpacks to tide them over until they can again receive their school breakfast Monday morning. Filling those backpacks is made possible through support from the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan-Flint.
In December, Harrison High School served as host to a completely free communitywide Christmas Eve dinner – communitywide! Turnout of volunteers was stupendous, while turnout of diners was relatively small. It was a first-time event and roads were a bit slippery, leading to the less-than-anticipated response. However, there is every intention to host it again next year with the inclusion of transportation solutions where needed.
The really big feed actually happened a few days prior to that community dinner. It took place quietly over the course of Wednesday and Thursday, as free holiday meal boxes were provided to some 50 Hillside families.
As she stood in the approximately 20-by-12 foot school copier/storage room which had been nearly filled with the food stuffs that went into the holiday boxes, Andrea Andera, Hillside Elementary principal, spoke effusively about the committed organizing and fulfillment efforts of Christi Fillhard, the playground aide who coordinated the project.
“Christi has really taken this on,” Andera said. “She has a passion [for this cause]. Some of the time I give her to work to do some of that, but most of that is on her own. She’ll work through her lunches and her breaks.”
Additionally, Hillside is one of the area schools benefitting from the Mears Organization out of Rosebush, Michigan, which adopts a family every year and makes sure that family has a merry Christmas.
“We’ve also had some other private donors just stop in and say ‘How can we help families at the holiday season?’” Andera said. “Because we’ve done a lot of adopt-a-family type things in the past, we thought that would be a good thing to do. Then as things started trickling in [it became apparent] it’s hard to match a family to that and meet everybody’s needs. But we know that everyone could use a meal during the holidays and this would be a good way to do that.”
Fillhard said that previously the school had a private donor which enabled production of 35 meals for families, but that did not materialize this year.
“We had a couple small donations, and I was talking to a volunteer who came over from the church [Trinity Christian Life Church],” Fillhard said. “She was helping me in here, and I happened to say something to her about it. She contacted somebody on her end, the Lansing Food Bank. They came through and we were able to do 50 meals.”
Andera said that while Hillside has a backpack program already, the school also has its own ongoing food drive.
“It’s funded by finding things on sale and bringing them in,” she said. “Teachers do it, some people in the community that know of it will bring things in. One of the things Christi does is put those things together and delivers them to kids.”
“We get 36 supplied by the food bank [as does Larson],” Fillhard said. “So I make another 15 a week.”
“The holiday one was huge,” Andera said. “Every week we were doing another 10-15 on top of what goes home.”
“You couldn’t walk in here,” Fillhard said. “I was telling teachers, ‘Sorry about the copy machine – you can’t get to it.’”
Andera said each Christmas box contained a whole meal: a ham, a pie, a 10-pound bag of potatoes, green bean casserole fixings, cans of corn, stuffing mix, butter, milk, rolls, gravy and a package of candy.
“We do a BIG box,” Andera said. “And families come in and pick it up – we do a lot of loading up cars for people.”
And like any genuine gift-giving, this event is also rewarding for the providers.
“I’m excited about it,” Andera said. “It’s a fun thing. And Christi is really the one who’s taken the reins on this thing. She doesn’t really get the time in her schedule to do that here, but she does that. When you take a lunch, she’s in here doing this and some days she comes in early and stays afterward. We have volunteers and she works with coordinating whoever says they want to volunteer.”
Andera said that while it’s nice to have the private donors, there also are families who want to help other families.
“People have come in and asked if they could adopt a family,” she said.
The school has a giving form that gets sent out that families can fill out with their information and return if they want to be adopted. Depending on funding, the school will match up based on what is available. This year, that meant seven families were matched up with presents and more. Andera said that included a family adopted by school staff, as well as other families taken on by various classrooms.
“I’m really proud of the things that we do,” Andera said. “And they [staff and volunteers] make it work.”
The food items for the boxes were provided in part through the Greater Lansing Food Bank which gives out Kroger shopping vouchers which Fillhard fulfilled on her own time. Andera said that other monetary contributions are used to shop locally, which is another way to make the community more prosperous and supportive of families. The balance of items come directly from local businesses or individuals and by contributions from students and teachers in the classrooms.
“This community never ceases to amaze me in its level of giving,” Andera said. “I’m very, very proud of this.”
“And the volunteers I had for that week before,” Fillhard said. “I had three moms that, if they wouldn’t have been here....”
For 15 years, Hillside Elementary has provided a special holiday meal for students and staff prior to the winter break. This year that fell on Thursday, Dec. 20. So, with all the packing and transferring of food boxes Wednesday and Thursday, it added up to a busy, busy week at Hillside! And since providing for the welfare of others is a selfless endeavor, at Hillside this year it truly was a season of giving.
Andera also noted that the school’s food bank serves as a homeless liaison for the school district.
“A lot of times we’ll have families come in who are staying at a motel for three nights, who don’t have access to emergency food and shelter,” Andera said. “And even the food banks and things where you get food from – there’s a process. So, when they come in and they have absolutely nothing, I can at least say let me get a box. We have ready-made boxes, let me get you some things to take home to the motel to at least get you settled until things come through.”
She said those food packages contain paper plates, cutlery, pull-top cans and things that can be prepared easily, even going so far as to include suggestions of what could be combined to make a true meal.
Andera said the one big food drive to aid the school’s food bank is Hoops for Hunger which is collected once a year during a basketball game. She said the majority of the Hoops for Hunger donations go to The Gathering Food Pantry, but that a portion of it stays at the Hillside food bank.
The need for backpack food continues, and contributions are always welcome. To learn how to be part of this sollution, call Larson Elementary at 989-539-3259 or Hillside Elementary at 989-539-6902.