By Hermine Bernstein, program coordinator, Frederick, Md.
My journey with Blessings in a Backpack started in the usual way, right time, right place. In November 2013, I was at the dentist waiting my turn, reading about BIB winning the People Magazine 2012 Charity of the Year award. As a retired teacher, I knew that many children relied on school meals, but I had no idea about the scope of the problem. Through the years, I did bits and pieces of volunteer work, but nothing grabbed my heart like this commitment to feeding children. That feeling of commitment is what we strive to encourage in all our volunteers.
The old African adage that, “It takes a village…” is at the core of volunteerism in Frederick. We’ve worked hard to make our program an integral part of the local community safety net. Each of our 19 partner schools, led by a volunteer school coordinator, creates their unique BIB community. We provide the systems, infrastructure, and, of course, ongoing guidance and problem solving, but the school is the focus. We love inviting folks to pack, because seeing all the food and realizing that each bag means a hunger-free weekend for a child is very inspirational. It becomes a very personal experience, so volunteers share the experience with their network, each becoming an ambassador for our mission. We’ve considered creating central packing but have gotten a lot of pushback from our volunteers . . . they love the idea of serving “their kids.”
Social media is key to sharing the successes and involvement of our community volunteers. As they say, “a picture is worth 1,000 words,” so we post lots of pix. This also encourages others to join our mission, because volunteers love to share pix of “their school” and “their team.”
At the beginning of the school year, school coordinators gather to review the mission and discuss any changes to the program. They know their input is highly valued. At year-end, we invite all volunteers to celebrate our successes. It fills my heart to see how completely Frederick has embraced the mission to mobilize communities, resources, and individuals. It feels good to do good, so we take every opportunity to celebrate all donations of time, talent, and treasure.
To engage as many Frederick “villagers” as possible, we’ve created multiple entry points to volunteering . . . a variety of tasks (packing, picking-up food, distribution) at different times on different days each week. Steering committee members are actively engaged packing at our schools, answering questions, sharing success, and offering hands-on support. We believe that weekly packing and communication are the primary reasons we’ve been able to feed so many kids. By establishing active partnerships with our school communities, they become fully committed to the program. This has created a wonderful relationship with the school system and a waiting list of schools hoping to join the program. Each school has a core group of volunteers, who joined by newbies, helps to spread the word about childhood hunger in our local community. After only four years, Blessings in a Backpack has become the touch-stone for solving the problems of childhood food insecurity. It’s been an amazing journey.