Lots of kids are taking new backpacks with them for the starting school year, but some of those backpacks can mean the difference between the child going hungry or being fed.

Some local children will be taking home a special backpack each Friday, a backpack that has done a bit of traveling through the week and been packed with nutritious food and snacks.

The child can take this food home to eat on the weekend, when they don’t get the school meals.

The Backpack Buddy Program is run by VISTO, the local food bank, a United Way Agency.

Beth Denison, the administrative assistant at VISTO and the director of VISTO’s Backpack Buddy Program, has seen the difference in the lives of the children.

The Backpack Buddy Program started 3 years ago in Gainesville with the help of a grant from the Tarrant Area Food Bank.

“It was for one elementary school and we started with 75 or 85 kids,” recalled Denison. “It was kind of a pilot program, but it was so very well-received and we saw such a need that it was the burden of VISTO and others in the community to continue it beyond the grant and beyond just that one school.”

The statistics are staggering. According to a pamphlet of VISTO’s, “Nationally, 1 in 5 children live in poverty. In the city of Gainesville, it is 1 in 3.”

“When kids are hungry and can’t concentrate, have stomach aches, headaches, and so forth, then it’s going to affect how they do in school,” Denison said. “It’s going to affect their grades, it’s going to affect their ability to concentrate, it’s going to affect their attitude, and so, the follow-up statistics have really proven that it’s very beneficial.”

“The agency that founded the Backpack Buddy system has done statistics for those kids who have been on the program,” Denison said, “and cited the improvement in grades, in attendance, fewer behavioral problems, kids more interested, healthier. It just makes a big difference.”

Denison said local teachers have seen the results, as well.

“When they’ve got kids who are more attentive and have less behavioral problems, it makes the atmosphere for the whole classroom better,” Denison said.

“This is something that will benefit those students so they can concentrate,” Denison said. “The school system is very much in favor of that. We’ve received great support from all the schools that we’ve worked with.”

That’s why the local Backpack Buddy program has grown steadily over the few years it’s been in place.

“As we ended last year, we were in 11 schools, and reaching 350 students per week,” Denison said. “Which sounds like a lot and it is a lot, but the numbers we have been given from the Cooke County schools is there are 1,900 elementary age children living in economically disadvantaged homes. So, as you can see, there are a lot more out there who we are not reaching.

“Our goal this year is to increase it to 500 (kids),” Denison said. “It will be in all the schools this year.”

The Backpack Buddy Program does not run through the summer. Now that school is in session again, the program will be up and running full speed quickly.

“They have to sign up each year,” Denison explained.

“Teachers are the ones with the kids every day,” Denison said, and they are the ones who usually get the kids involved in the program.

“They would identify a child who seems to be a potential candidate. They would send home notice to the family, saying your child qualifies for this,” Denison said. “If you’re interested in this, fill out this form and send it back in. Then, of course, it’s up to the family whether or not they want to participate. They have to sign off on it and provide a little information in terms of their income and how many kids are in the family.

“That’s really the word we would like to get out there,” Denison said. “If there are any children or families who are interested and need that aid, to let their teachers know that.”

The Backpack Buddy Program is for all school aged children, from the littlest up through high school.

“Typically, it is one of the younger age children who sign up,” Denison admitted, “and they will include their siblings and take enough home with them. It’s for all school aged kids, but we send home one backpack per family.”

And the kids don’t need to worry about their peers knowing what’s in their backpack.

“They’re just basic school backpacks,” Denison said. “They’re not all VISTO backpacks, something that would stand out. They’re just regular school backpacks because we want to be sensitive to the families and to the children that they not be singled out. So it would appear that they’re carrying any other backpack.”

The important thing right now is to sign up if you want to be a part of the program.

“We want to make sure that word is out to the whole community that if they have a need there, to contact their teacher and let them know,” Denison said.

With so many in need, what if the number goes higher than the projected 500?

“We’ll serve as many as we can,” she promised. “God just always seems to meet the need, so we don’t worry about it.”

To pull off this community service, VISTO needs lots of volunteers, both to donate food items and money, and to help fill the backpacks. For more information about volunteering, see Part 2 of this series.

For more information about the Backpack Buddy Program, how to sign up, or how to volunteer, contact VISTO at (940) 6686403 weekday mornings, visit the office at 1401 Southland in Gainesville or go to edvisto@sbcglobal.net online.

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