Back Pack Program - Hunger Mission Group
In the fall of 2006, Tupper Garden taught an adult Sunday School class based on the book Ending Hunger Now, by Bob Dole and George McGovern. It was a book that disturbed the peace of some, and they gathered in January, 2007 to form the Hunger Mission Group. The mission statement was: To faithfully lead the congregation of RCPC to identify and alleviate hunger. Stated goals:
1) To inform and educate the congregation about local hunger
2) Inform and educate the congregation about Presbytery’s hunger programs
3) Actively engage the congregation in alleviating hunger
The initial intent had been to direct the efforts toward Haiti. Tupper informed the group that an anonymous donor from RCPC had given a significant sum of money annually that was designed for alleviating local hunger. This was a puzzle, as the group hadn’t realized that hunger existed in our own backyard! After doing a minuscule amount of research, data showed that one in five children in Roanoke experienced hunger and food insecurity. A shocked but grateful group had a clear mission: childhood hunger!
Initially, RCPC joined with Christ Lutheran, Raleigh Court Methodist, and Virginia Heights Baptist in a program designed to feed school children that was modeled after “Micah’s Backpacks,” a program developed in nearby Blacksburg. We soon branched out, however, to do research to establish our own program. We discovered that Hurt Park elementary school was Roanoke city’s most impoverished school. This was before school breakfast and lunch programs were expanded, and approximately 95% of these school children qualified for free lunch.
RCPC member Amy Thisdell was a Hurt Park teacher and arranged a meeting with her principal. We learned that hunger was an issue, especially on Monday mornings; children were not receiving school lunches over the weekend and were coming to school hungry. We decided to bridge this food gap by going to the school each Thursday to pack food bags to give to the children on Friday afternoons. The food bags were for students to put in their backpacks to take home, hence the name. The program began with around 30 students in the fall of 2007. As of 2023, that number has reached 142!
Our church was later able to expand the program to another city elementary school, Lincoln Terrace. RCPC volunteers gather at RCPC to pack food for the weekend backpacks. 112 students are served weekly by this section.
2023 saw a new model to help students at nearby Woodrow Wilson Middle School. Instead of weekend backpacks, they receive a “pass” to a food pantry to discreetly get food bags to get them through a tough time.
Those early visionaries such as Susan Clark, Susan Marnie, Burt Newman, Dick Kepley, Virginia Lester, Cindy and Henry Schaeffer, Amy Thisdall, Marilyn Martin, Mary Francis Donnelly, and others had no idea how the program would grow! We now have a wonderful food pantry in our building as well as a special “peanut butter shelf” in the preschool area named in memory of Susan Currie, a tireless worker and inspiration for others in this mission. Several men in the congregation like Henry Schaeffer, Steve Nash, and others deliver and stock food on the shelves to be used each month.
Katie Highfill is the coach who leads the packing crew for Lincoln Terrace at the church on Wednesdays, while Nancy Trussell is the on-site leader for packing the bags at Hurt Park. Both leaders downplay their roles and thank the MANY volunteers; the packers enjoy the camaraderie of working with others while being God’s hands in the world.