MILO, Maine — While some Milo Elementary School pupils forget and leave their homework at home, those same children have never forgotten to return their backpacks for the Blessings in a Backpack program, say school officials.
For those pupils, the contents of their backpacks represent full bellies during vacation periods when meager rations at home otherwise would leave them hungry.
Under the program, every Friday before school vacations, more than 200 children in kindergarten through grade six receive a backpack filled with such items as juice boxes, peanut butter, fruit, noodles, applesauce, Pop Tarts and instant oatmeal.
The program was funded last year by local donations, including help from the Milo Food Cupboard, but the trying economic times have limited the people who are able to give, according to Amber Gahagan, SAD 41’s social worker.
“This community, as difficult and as poverty-stricken as we’ve been, there’s no question that people reach in their pockets to help each other, but it’s tough,” Gahagan said.
When it almost appeared in recent months that the lack of funding might end the successful program, a miracle recently arrived tucked inside an envelope. It was a $20,000 check from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation in response to a grant request made in 2009 by Gahagan.
“I was thrilled,” Gahagan said this week of receiving the check. Because of the lack of funds, the backpack program had been scaled back from every Friday to every Friday before vacation, and there was no way Gahagan and school officials wanted to see it reduced further or stopped.
Gahagan said that before the town and school adopted the Blessings in a Backpack program in 2009 — the first New England school to do so — teachers heard frequent complaints from children about being hungry on weekends and vacations. Those comments were a major concern for staff over the years, but the urgency really kicked in with the more difficult economic times, she said.
The local food cupboard has done what it can to help fill the backpacks, Gahagan said. “They’ve been a great help,” she said.
The local Jobs for Maine Graduates, or JMG, program also has been a big help, according to Gahagan. She said the backpack program had received a $1,000 JMG grant, and students involved in the JMG program have been helping to fill the backpacks this year.
Gahagan said the involvement of the older students allows them to give back to the community, and shows them that by working together they can make a difference even in a small community with limited resources.
“It certainly shows the commitment, the caring of the school community even outside the school walls, and it also helps to show those older students what it’s like to be able to help another person in need,” Gahagan said.
She said the funds from the Kings should allow the continuation of the program on the Fridays before vacation for two more years.