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Group provides weekend nourishment for needy students in W.Va. counties

April 27, 2012|By MEG H. PARTINGTON | megp@herald-mail.com
  • From left, Carolyn Elliott, Nancy Snyder, Kristin Friend, Rachel Lancaster and Ann Walker check bags to make sure they contain plenty of food on March 31 at Eagle School Intermediate in Martinsburg, W.Va. The women are participating in a packing day for the Bags of Love program, which provides food on weekends and during breaks from school to 500 children in 26 schools in Berkeley and Jefferson counties.
Photo by Yvette May/Staff Photographer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. —
Every weekend during the school year, 500 children in Berkeley and Jefferson counties go home with backpacks filled not only with books but food packed with love from their community.

Through a program called Bags of Love, the students, in grades prekindergarten to eight, receive enough nonperishable food to get their families through weekends during the school year. The initiative started in August 2010 to help prevent children from going hungry when they were not in school.

Monetary donations, grants and fundraisers pay for child-friendly, easy-to-prepare foods such as ravioli, cereal, Vienna sausages, macaroni and cheese, noodle soups and snacks, said Diana Wall of Martinsburg, who is outreach community coordinator for One Hope Ministries International, which oversees Bags of Love. The mission of the Martinsburg-based interdenominational organization is to help transform the community into a better place to live, work and play, according to its website at OneHopeMinistriesInter national.org.

Wall orders the food in bulk online and employees from the stores from which she buys it — Sam's Club in Hagerstown and Costco in Winchester, Va. — package the items for pickup.

The food is gathered at the stores by volunteer drivers and brought to a school, usually Orchard View Intermediate School in Martinsburg, where it's unloaded by volunteers. Bags are packed one Saturday a month by volunteers, including Girl and Boy Scouts, guidance counselors, teachers and representatives from area businesses and churches.

Wall said about 2,000 bags can be packed in 70 minutes, depending on how many volunteers are there.

Jessica Brown of Martinsburg became involved with Bags of Love when a friend brought her to a packing in September 2010. She said at that time, there was enough food provided to fill five school cafeteria tables.

"Now we take up a whole cafeteria," Brown said, adding that packers range in age from 2 to the late 70s.

Volunteers deliver the bags of food on Thursdays to the schools, where staff members discreetly put them in backpacks at the elementary schools and in lockers at the middle schools.

Guidance counselors and principals select children they know need help, then permission slips are sent home to their families for participation in Bags of Love, Wall said.

"We don't know who the children are," Brown said.

When the program started, there were 60 children involved in the program in Berkeley and Jefferson counties, but now about 500 children in 26 schools are served, Wall said.



'A wonderful thing'

Kristen Shriver, a fourth-grade teacher at Eagle School Intermediate in Martinsburg, got her school involved with Bags of Love two years ago after reading about it.

"It sounded really good," Shriver said.

Last school year, teachers were hesitant to provide names of potential participants, but "this year, everybody jumped on board," Shriver said. This year, Eagle School Intermediate doubled the number of students to 50 in grades three to five who receive the monthly packages at the school.

At Eagle School, the children receiving Bags of Love meet Shriver and some of her fellow staff members at a designated spot to get their food. She leaves it in their backpacks if they're not able to meet with her.

"Very grateful, they seem, for every little thing," Shriver said of the recipients.

"Not everybody will get the opportunity to see these kids' faces like I do," she admitted, but the benefits of helping with Bags of Love are priceless.

"It takes so little" to help, said Shriver, who, along with her three daughters, also helps pack the food every month.

Lois Pierce, a guidance counselor at Bunker Hill (W.Va.) Elementary School, got her school involved with Bags of Love two years ago after seeing a flier about it.

"I've been concerned about this for years," Pierce said of children going hungry on weekends and school breaks. "This is a wonderful thing."

Pierce said 26 children participate at Bunker Hill Elementary, which has students in grades kindergarten to three. She and a teacher's aide meet the recipients in a hallway, where they tuck the food in their backpacks and send them back to class.

"They're very excited on Fridays when they get their bags," Pierce said. "They're just so, so appreciative," she said of the students' families.

Pierce said her school's involvement in the program has enhanced her communication with families of needy students.

"I think it makes a difference," Pierce said, because the relatives realize she's not criticizing their child rearing but trying to maximize the kids' learning abilities by making sure they're fed.

Some heads of household have financial stressors other than putting food on the table, including heating their homes, providing clothes for their families and health care expenses, Pierce said.

"This is one little piece we can take off their plate," she said.



Other One Hope services

One Hope Ministries International doesn't abandon its feeding mission when school is out of session.

During the Christmas season, it provides holiday meal boxes and volunteers wrap donated gifts, which are distributed with the edibles.

"Just about every kid in the program had gifts, as well," Brown said of the 2011 holiday season.

The faith-based nonprofit organization, whose work is carried out with the help of about 20 churches of various denominations, as well as community members, hosted a community Christmas party in 2011. Pierce recalled how some of her students weren't able to attend, so volunteers brought the holiday spirit to them by bringing gifts and food to Bunker Hill Elementary. If families couldn't pick up the items there, Pierce took everything to their homes.

"These people (from One Hope) are just so neat," Pierce said.

One Hope also participates in His Food Ministry, which provides boxes of food at low prices.

For $29, buyers can receive an assortment of items such as chicken breasts, smoked sausage, frozen lasagna and pizza, corn dogs, ground beef, frozen biscuits and vegetables. Add-ons such as steaks and fish can be purchased, too. There is no income requirement to participate in His Food Ministry, Wall said.

His Food replaced Angel Food Ministries, a national, nonprofit food-distribution program with which Wall was involved. That ministry went out of business in September 2011 after 17 years of providing discounted groceries to families across the country, citing the economic downturn for its downfall, according to Associated Press reports.

Over the summer, His Food and Bags of Love will join forces to provide food to needy families, Wall said.

Also in the summer, One Hope puts on Uni-Fest, a free community party at which backpacks filled with school supplies are distributed, and food, drinks, entertainment, horse rides, kids' games and inflatables are provided to attendees. This year's fest, scheduled for Aug. 12 from 5 to 7 p.m., will be at the Berkeley 2000 Recreation Center in Martinsburg. The event also includes a job fair, and representatives from social-services organizations will be present to help struggling families, Brown said.

"It's a huge event," she said.

When the weather gets cold, Coats of Love kicks into gear. Through that program, donated coats are given to the needy, Wall said.


For more information about

 One Hope Ministries International, go to OneHopeMinistriesInternational.org

 Uni-Fest, go to Uni-Fest.net

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