It’s not supposed to happen in the United States of America. Not in a country with million-dollar neighborhoods, designer wardrobes and super-sized menus.
Childhood hunger exists in other places — distant lands devastated by droughts, famine and disease.
But throughout Washington County, hundreds of children live in homes without enough food.
They are part of families where a steady job no longer guarantees a week’s worth of groceries; where financially strapped parents face choices they never imagined and the stigma attached to asking for help persists.
For many of these children, a free lunch at school might be their only meal of the day.
During tough economic times, their numbers continue to grow.
“Yet, they remain invisible,” Justin Repp said. “If you walked into a school and looked around, you wouldn’t know they were hungry until you listened to their stories. Then, it becomes glaringly obvious. Hunger exists right in our own backyard.”
As pastor of Lifehouse West Church on Salem Avenue in Hagerstown, Repp knows the faces of many of the children who live in the shadow of hunger.
Several years ago, his church adopted Winter Street Elementary School, helping with a creative writing program and “doing things to network with them,” he said.
Through his contact with the teachers, Repp also knew of the economic challenges many of the students faced.
An idea is born
While attending a conference in Florida several years ago, Repp said he heard about a church in Texas that had initiated a program to fight childhood hunger in its community.
The church worked with schools to identify children who were most likely to go without food on a Saturday and Sunday — days when they were not at school to receive a free nutritious meal.
Volunteers filled backpacks with enough nonperishable food for the weekend, delivered the bags to the teachers who distributed them on Fridays and then collected them on Mondays when the children returned to the classroom.
“I thought it sounded like a neat idea and I wanted to make it happen in our own community,” he said.
Repp said he pitched the project to teachers and counselors at Winter Street, and after some discussion, the school decided to come on board.
When the program was implemented last year, 10 backpacks of food were filled each week for students, he said.
The program eventually expanded to Salem Avenue Elementary School.
But Repp knew this was just the tip of the iceberg.
“There are other local programs that do pretty much the same thing,” he said, “including Micah’s Backpack, an outreach ministry of several churches. I had talked to their volunteers, getting advice and suggestions, so I knew this was bigger than one school. But I also knew to make this really work, I needed help.”
Turning to others
Repp turned to Curt Snyder of Lifehouse Bethel, who coordinates the annual Convoy of Hope in Hagerstown — an event that mobilizes churches and organizations to provide free services to the disadvantaged.
And he turned to Garry Holman.
Repp said he has a good connection with Holman, who is the owner of American Federation Karate in Hagerstown. Repp had studied under Holman and knew of his activism in serving the community.
Some years ago, Holman founded the National Organization of Registered Martial Arts League (N.O.R.M.A.L.), a nonprofit that aids youths and their families by providing outreach programs and resources, including computer literacy, outdoor camps, homework enrichment and mentoring.
“When I approached him about the Power Pack Program, Garry immediately jumped on board and began to make things happen,” Repp said. “He started lining up volunteers, seeking donations, making contacts throughout the community.”
Today, one year later, the program serves six schools and distributes 142 backpacks each week.
Holman said he didn’t hesitate to become involved in the program “because this was something much needed. Plus, I always look at the bigger picture. I looked at the magnitude of what this could accomplish. And instead of one school, I want to make sure that every hungry child in every school in Washington County receives a backpack.”
Holman said one of the biggest problems in dealing with hunger “is waiting for someone else to do it. You can’t expect the responsibility to fall on just one agency. If we unify and mobilize as a community, if I help the person next to me, and you help the person next to you, it becomes much easier.”
Tracy Schindel, executive director of N.O.R.M.A.L., said involvement with the Power Pack Program is a perfect fit for the group.
“We want to be more than a martial arts school,” she said. “We want to build a better tomorrow one child, one community, one day at a time — which is our motto.”
“Community service is a passion,” she added. “So, when Justin approached us about lending a hand, we were absolutely interested. We immediately said, ‘let’s do this.’ It’s a great partnership.”
Schindel said the program currently serves students at Winter Street, Salem Avenue, Hancock, Williamsport, Cascade and Smithsburg elementary schools, but she expects that number to grow by next year.
“Other schools have approached us with an interest in participating,” she said.
Schindel said all backpacks are filled at N.O.R.M.A.L.’s building on West Franklin Street in Hagerstown, by dedicated volunteers who show up every week ready to help.
“About 839 volunteer hours have been clocked and 246 different volunteers participate,” she noted. “We have all ages represented, from 3 years old through 60. It’s something the young people especially like doing because they know it’s helping other children.”
On a recent Wednesday evening, about a dozen volunteers arrived at N.O.R.M.A.L. to help fill backpacks. In assembly line fashion, they methodically walked around a long table covered with boxes of food, placing items into each bag.
“I never know who is going to show up. But we always have more than enough people lending a hand. And they have it down to a system,” Shindel said, watching the group. “They are so efficient, we never have to stay an extra hour to get the job completed. They all are very dedicated.”
Schindel said it costs an average of $300 a school year to fill a backpack for each child but Holman noted “we’re getting it done with peanuts.”
“We’re appreciative of both money and food donations,” Shindel said. “Sometimes, people drop off boxes of food at my front door. And we absolutely, positively could not do this without Food Resources and area food banks, which help fill the gaps.”
Organizers also are appreciative of the manpower and materials provided by Lowe’s, which built shelving at a site N.O.R.M.A.L. leases for food storage.
“They loved the thought of this program and wanted to help. It really has become a community effort,” she said.
All items are nonperishable, Shindel explained, and include such foods as cereal, granola bars, peanut butter crackers, 100 percent fruit juice, shelf stable milk, canned fruits and vegetables and canned meats and stews.
“We try to provide enough for two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners,” she said. “And we really keep nutrition in mind. Because everything has to be shelf stable, it can become a bit of a challenge. But we are learning and growing.”
Schindel said they also provide extra items for holidays or extended school breaks — “food to sustain the children for longer periods of time.”
Extra bags also go to siblings, she said. “The recipients of the packs are identified by school counselors and teachers, so they know if there are other children at home who will need food.”
Schindel said the whole process is done in a way that no child is singled out.
“It begins with a parent signing a permission slip for their child to receive the bags,” she explained. “Then, the bags are filled, usually on a Tuesday or Wednesday, and distributed to the schools. This is exactly why we use backpacks. It’s a typical everyday item you would find a child carrying at school.”
Schindel said 35,510 items have been distributed this school year and approximately 22,980 pounds of food have been sent home this year.
Expanding the program
There also is discussion about implementing a summer feeding program to assist children when they are not at school, she said, as well as the possibility of some day expanding to middle and high school students.
Schindel said “there are all kinds of statistics that show a connection between hunger and a child’s ability to learn. When a child is not hungry, he or she has better concentration, improved test scores and better school attendance.”
“By addressing one problem you can solve several others,” she said.
Holman said N.O.R.M.A.L. is probably the only nonprofit martial arts school in a 50-mile radius.
“We believe it’s not about making money, it’s about how we can serve others,” he said. “We can do this. This is our extended family — the people who walk up and down the street outside our door. We wouldn’t leave our family hungry. Why would we not help these people?”
Those interested in making a donation or receiving more information on the Power Pack Program may email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 301-393-9070.