Blessings in a Backpack Waukesha County program growing in many ways

Submitted from Regina Estrada
Members of the local Blessings in a Backpack local chapter helped fill bags during a recent event. Pictured from left are Agnes O'Connor, Wendy Dallimore, Regina Estrada, Cathy Priem and Linda Balthazor.
Published on: 3/11/2014

The local Blessings in a Backpack program is still in its infancy.

Its audience, however, continues to grow..

Just two years ago, the program was feeding 25 students at one school. But Blessings in a Backpack Waukesha County, led by a group of volunteer moms in the county, has now expanded to three schools and is feeding more than 600 students each week.

Each week, backpacks at three Waukesha Public Schools are filled with nonperishable food items for children who might otherwise not have a healthy food option on the weekends.

The students who receive the bags of food through the Blessings in a Backpack Waukesha County program must qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program.

"We have these moms who may never meet these students, but they're like St. Nick filling a backpack," said Karin Rajnicek, a member of the Waukesha School Board, who gets emotional talking about the program.

The organization started when then-Hartland resident Linda Broyles, the former program coordinator, was reading how Blessings in a Backpack, a national nonprofit organization, was named the 2012 Charity of the Year by People Magazine's Help Feed a Child Campaign.

After learning there are 4,600 students eligible for the free and reduced lunch program across Waukesha County, she started a local chapter here.

Local chapter formed

She recruited other women in Lake Country, and after they each put in $100 and with an additional $1,000 private donation, they began serving students at Hadfield Elementary in Waukesha at the start of the 2012-13 school year.

Fundraising continued, and by the end of the year they could serve 100 students at Hadfield.

Hadfield was chosen as the first school to serve because 70 percent of its students (239) were on free and reduced lunches. It's the second highest percentage in the district.

"It's so rewarding," said Regina Estrada, the new local program coordinator. "It's really something else when you get a thumbs up from little kids when carrying the bags in the hallway. And last year one of them said 'I love it when you bring in food because my grandma doesn't have enough money to buy food.' You know then you're doing the right thing."

Blair Elementary has the biggest need in the district, as 89 percent of its students are eligible for the program, but Estrada said the school receives assistance from the Salvation Army.

Blessings in a Backpack chose the Waukesha School District to begin serving because the need is so much greater here than across the county.

"We have the biggest need in our school system in Waukesha," said Estrada, of Delafield. "That's where we're trying to make an impact as we grow."

In total, 31 percent of the students (4,384) in the district are eligible for free and reduced lunch, according to recent statistics provided by Lauri Dudley, executive assistant for the chief financial officer/director of business services.

Growing its base

After Hadfield, the school with the third greatest need is Banting Elementary, where 61 percent (303 students) are eligible, followed by Lowell Elementary, with 46 percent (137 students).

That's why, with fundraising going well in its second year, those schools were recently added to the program.

Mary Garcia-Velez, principal at Banting Elementary, said almost all of the school's eligible students use Blessings in a Backpack assistance.

"They've been wonderful volunteers," said Garcia-Velez. "It's been a seamless partnership, as it's such an easy process for teachers. The volunteers deliver the bags right to the classrooms. I think parents appreciate it."

Many avenues of support

Estrada knows the program's growth couldn't have happened without the increased support it has received.

The organization received a significant boost with a recent $20,000 grant from the Emory T. Clark Charitable Foundation as Marjorie Clark Takton opened her Elm Grove home for a fundraiser last summer.

Takton is friends with Cathy Priem of Delafield, one of the local chapter's core members. Priem told her she was involved in a new charity, and Takton welcomed the group.

Besides the financial support, the organization has received support from youth and community groups, which have helped fill bags during fundraising activities.

Matthew Hoefle of Sullivan is one example. He led a packing effort for his Eagle Scout project where he raised $4,000 and led two bag-filling events that filled more than 2,000 bags at the beginning of the school year.

His dad, Paul, is an attorney in Waukesha and a member of the Waukesha Rotary. He heard about Blessings in a Backpack when Estrada spoke about the program at Rotary last year. Matthew finished his project in August, but Paul has continued helping, as he organized a bag-filling event where volunteers gathered in the parking garage of his Waukesha-based law firm, The Schroeder Group S.C., and filled more than 3,500 bags.

The local chapter has received help from the Hartland Junior Women's Club, GE Healthcare and local Girl Scout groups as well as the Rotary. After bags are filled at packing events, members of Blessings in a Backpack Waukesha County go into the schools at the end of the each week to distribute them.

"I'm so appreciative of them," Estrada said. "It's a grass-roots organization, and people want to reach out and help kids who are hungry because these students are all right here in the community."

Schools in need

The organization has worked with Rajnicek in coordinating with the schools.

With three kids of her own in the district and knowing that there are 250 students in the district who are homeless, she felt compelled to help.

"I'm in tears sometimes when I hear the stories when I go into the schools," Rajnicek said. "It's sad."

She notes how diverse the School District is and says "it's just day and night" when comparing schools such as Summit View to ones such as Blair and Hadfield. Gaps are often seen on test scores from less-diverse schools and those with fewer students on free and reduced lunch compared to those that are less fortunate.

"It's not an excuse," Rajnicek said when comparing schools and test scores. "But in some cases when these schools aren't performing on tests, students aren't eating at home. So that's why Blessings in a Backpack is so great. Moms who don't even know them love them."