By CATHY MOUNCE, Register Staff Writer
Cooke County —
Volunteers In Service To Others (VISTO) is a non-profit organization that began in Cooke County in the 1980s as a program created by the area Ministry Alliance. Prior to VISTO, local churches acted independently to handle crisis situations. One of the programs offered by VISTO is the Backpack Buddy program.
Nationally, one in five children live in poverty. In Gainesville that ratio is one in four. School nurses report that children complain of stomachaches and headaches due to hunger. When children are hungry, they are in poor health nutritionally, they have trouble learning and they fall behind in achieving their full potential. The result can be a life empty of hope and promise.
The local schools will identify children who would most benefit from the program. The qualified children receive a backpack filled with food for themselves and their school-aged siblings for the weekend during the school calendar. In Cooke County, school-aged children are ages three to 18. The two day supply of food enables them to have something to eat when they might not have anything until Monday.
Michelle Baldwin, Executive Director of VISTO said, “One year there was a little boy we will call ‘George’ who received his backpack on Friday. He was so excited and when the teacher asked him why he was so happy to get his backpack he said, ‘Because I can feed my little brother and sister.’ The program allows them to feel empowered to help their family.”
Baldwin stated that on average the costs of the food runs $5 per week. The backpack costs $15.
Teachers have cited that the primary benefits of the Backpack Buddy Program indicate great improvements in grades, attendance, fewer behavioral problems, more interest in school and better health.
Each year, VISTO has a fundraiser to help cover cost of the Backpack Buddy Program. This year’s major fundraiser will be in April and will include a Murder/Mystery. Last year, a similar fundraiser accumulated $75,000. This year the goal is $100,000.
Working with Michelle Baldwin are food coordinator Shelley Burgess, financial assistance coordinator Misty Beaver and Warehouse Manager Suzanne Yeager.
Yeager also is the volunteer coordinator and Elm Street community garden coordinator.
“During the past year we had over 250 volunteers logging in over 4,000 volunteer hours,” Baldwin said. “Gainesville and Cooke County have some of the most giving people around. Of course, we can always use more.”