October 24, 2014   30 Tishrei 5775
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Backpack Buddies
Mar. 10, 2011
Providing a bag of nutritious weekend meals to hungry youth in need.

Community Contact Information:
Congregation Mickve Israel
Savannah, GA
http://mickveisrael.org

Goals:

  • Develop a program that would involve all members of the congregation, including children
  • Reach a broader community, beyond the congregation and the Jewish community.
  • Address a pressing local need: child nutrition
  • Focus on one objective, one single project, to increase the chances of success.

Overview:
Backpack Buddies provides a bag of nutritious weekend meals to hungry youth in need. Each week, synagogue volunteers donate, pack and distribute six meals worth of food for 100 local school children. The synagogue has also organized a used book fair, tutoring lessons and summer camp scholarships for the students.

Preparation:
To reach the goals listed above, the congregation implemented a Backpack Buddies program, as modeled by a local hunger relief organization. Once the program proved successful, it was expanded to serve a greater number of students by providing a book fair, camp scholarships and, in general, deepening the relationship between the synagogue and school.

The process included: selecting an inner-city school, identifying the number of children to be served; developing written procedures such as collecting food items, packing and delivering the backpacks, obtaining signed releases from parents or guardians, developing a budget; developing a fundraising program; developing a public relations plan; developing an implementation timetable; securing the congregation’s board support; meeting with school officials; and identifying a locked space to store the food.

Project Implementation: 
The program was launched in November 2008 to serve 25 students at a local elementary school. Congregants bring in food while volunteers take inventory and purchase additional food when necessary. Each Thursday, volunteers select and pack a weekend’s worth of food (six meals) in plastic shopping bags and deliver them to the schools. The schools place the packed food in donated, numbered backpacks, which are then distributed to the designated children every Friday afternoon. The children return the empty backpacks on Monday so they can receive food the following week.

To underscore the importance of the project in teaching and modeling Jewish values, the congregation also sets aside time during religious school for students and parents to pack foods for the needy children. After packing the bags, the synagogue’s religious school students said prayers of thanksgiving in their own words and put personal notes in the backpacks.

In 2009, the Backpack Buddies program expanded; by the end of the year, 58 children were receiving backpacks. And by 2010, the program served 100 students each at three different schools. The program also expanded beyond its initial focus on providing food: Congregants began tutoring students in mathematics and reading skills. They hosted a “gently used” children’s book fair, which was first held in the spring of 2009 with almost 3,000 books. Every student received one free book and was permitted to buy four more at $.25 each.  The remaining books were used by teachers for classroom libraries, and proceeds from the book sales were given to the school to obtain additional needed supplies for the students. In another expansion of the program, the congregation raised money to provide full scholarships for ten students to attend a summer learning camp.

Results:
Congregation Mickve Israel has assisted six other congregations, both Jewish and Christian, to begin Backpack Buddies programs of their own. Congregation Mickve Israel’s Backpack Buddies efforts, combined with those of other congregations, now reach nine inner city public schools in Savannah and serve several hundred. The goal is to secure the participation of enough houses of worship to serve all elementary schools in the city.     

The teachers report a positive change in student performance of the children involved in the Backpack Buddies program, not only on Mondays but also throughout the week. It has helped show the parents that the school cares about their children’s needs. The congregation receives thank you notes and artwork from children throughout the year.

Within the congregation, the Backpack Buddies program has promoted a deeper awareness of the needs of underprivileged children in Savannah. Many congregants mention the program when talking to others about the synagogue, and the effort has become an integral part of the religious school curriculum.

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