Imagine it’s Friday at lunchtime and you take your tray to the cafeteria table. Regardless of what’s on your plate, you eat it. After all, you never know if there will be enough food at home tonight, or tomorrow, or the day after. Other kids may not know this. They may not pay attention. But other kids don’t have to worry like you do about being hungry, or about how their families will keep enough food on the table.
This scenario plays out every day in cities and towns across America. And while many people think it’s just poor neighborhoods in Chicago or less affluent suburbs, this story is also Barrington’s story.
It’s happening right here, in our hometown.
In 2010, Barrington residents Tom and Darby Hills recognized that need and did something about it—co-founding Barrington Children’s Charities (BCC) with the goal of helping children from Barrington School District 220. In 2012, as part of its ongoing mission to “support and address the social, emotional, physical, and education needs of children,” the nonprofit launched a pilot initiative with the national Blessings in a Backpack program at Sunny Hill Elementary School.
The need was obvious. Even though they had federal free or reduced meals at school, more than 300 students at Sunny Hill were at risk of going hungry over the weekend or during school holidays. Volunteers from BCC’s Blessings in a Backpack program mobilized to provide a weekly bag of food staples for the student, with items such as beans, tuna, oatmeal, soup, boxes of macaroni and cheese, and fresh produce.
Today, the program has expanded to all eight elementary schools in District 220, with an eye for expansion in 2018.
“There’s a real need to feed children in our community. We’re so thankful to all our donors and sponsors, and we are equally thankful to our community volunteers that join in the packing each week,” says Darby Hills, who serves as president of BCC and serves on the national board of Blessings in a Backpack. “These efforts make a difference in the lives of local children in need. ”
On December 9, when BCC presents its much-anticipated annual Holly Ball gala at Barrington Hills Country Club, the focus will be on extending that reach to the Early Learning Center in Barrington, and possibly on to both middle schools and the high school. More than 300 people are expected to attend the event, co-chaired by Christie Shoemacher and Erin Vondra.
“A strong focus of this year’s Holly Ball and our annual video will be to highlight our Blessings program and ask donors to help us add the Early Learning Center as early as January 2018,” explains long-time BCC board member Kirsten Baseley.
There are currently about 100 preschool and kindergarten-aged children at the Early Learning Center who qualify for the Blessings program.
“Our team is working out the logistics now but we have already begun dropping off a few bags on an emergency need,” says Darby Hills. “This would increase our numbers from more than 600 children to more than 700 children.”
The program’s success in six years is a testament to the power of the national Blessings in a Backpack initiative, which requires a minimum three-year commitment from local organizations who want to help feed the estimated 16.2 million children in this country who are at risk of hunger. The consequences of poor nutrition can result in a weaker immune system, increased hospitalization, lower IQ, shorter attention spans, and lower academic achievement.
BCC organizers say pairing with the highly recognized Blessings in a Backpack brand has been essential for buying power to purchase items that are packed into bags by volunteers every Thursday at Sunny Hill Elementary.
“Blessings in a Backpack has an intangible effect in the community,” explains Susan Hyde, who coordinates the food distribution program with Claudia Gerrard. “It allows us to let our students know that people in their community care about them and are working together to keep them fed. It also provides our wide range of volunteers an opportunity to have a direct impact on the community in which they reside.”
“The program not only helps feed children in need, but also helps bring people within our community together,” she says. “Each week we are making a difference in the lives of so many.”
Thursday packing days require about two hours of volunteer time and result in bags of food that are ready for distribution to more than 600 children in Barrington. One hundred percent of the grant funding for the program comes from BCC’s generous donors and sponsors.
Founded with the mission that children are our most valuable resource, this is one example of the common good BCC has done in our community over the last seven years. The charity has provided more than $550,000 in programming that benefit local children in need, with a goal to increase it even more in 2018.
While the middle school and high school are not currently included in the Blessings in a Backpack program, “discretionary” bags of food are already being distributed. The long-term goal is to ensure that no child of any age goes hungry in Barrington.
“Childhood hunger is an invisible problem that has spread across the U.S. The Barrington community is not immune,” adds Hyde. “Because of the generosity of Barrington Children’s Charities, we can provide a safety net from hunger to our local students.”
Barrington Children’s Charities presents its annual Holly Ball holiday gala at 6 p.m. on Saturday, December 9, at Barrington Hills Country Club. For more information about the event or how you can get your invitation, visit barringtonchildrenscharities.com. For more information about the Blessings in a Backpack program, visit blessingsinabackpack.org.
BLESSINGS, BY THE NUMBERS
On a national scale, Blessings in a Backpack has partnered with Quaker Oats and global market research firm, Ipsos, to develop a national evaluation project that measures impact on a deeper level than bags and pounds of food distributed. This multi-year project involves various Blessings’ stakeholders in the evaluation process. During the first year of the project, student surveys found that—in addition to no longer feeling weekend hunger pangs—children fed by the Blessings experience the following impact on their lives:
• 59 percent find it is easier to learn at school
• 60 percent do not get in trouble as much
• 78 percent feel cared for by their community
• 71 percent feel they are helping their family
• 60 percent of children report that their school attendance is better