Helping hungry kids one Power Pack at a time

Childhood poverty has been on the rise in the United States for some time now. In fact, over half of all students in the US are living in low-income households. It's a trend that's being reported across the nation -- students who count on free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs are growing in number.

But what happens to these children when school is not in session? Are these kids getting enough to eat? That concern troubled Diane Gauthier, president of Gauthier Insurance in Ishpeming, when she considered the needs of children in her area.

Then, Gauthier heard about a "backpack program" being implemented in Marquette, called JJ Packs. The local program provided at-risk children with bags full of nutritious, child-friendly food that could be easily prepared, to take home for the weekend. Immediately, Diane contacted her coworkers to see if they would be interested in starting a similar initiative for students in the Ishpeming School District. They responded with enthusiasm, and soon, Hematite Power Packs was formed.

Diana Sundberg, who also works for Gauthier Insurance, volunteered her services right away. "It struck a nerve with me that people in our own town didn't have enough to eat. I believe that I have been blessed in this life, and I needed to give back," she says.

The group met in the basement of Gauthier Insurance and packed 35 initial bundles of food for the first Friday in November of 2015. Right away, the responses they received were overwhelming and heartwarming.

"An aide that works for Ishpeming schools was riding the bus with a child who receives a pack," Sundberg says. "She told me that he was so excited to receive his pack. He took everything out and told her he was going to eat the soup, and give the cucumber to his dad, and the apple to his brother."

Beth Lawson, who has taught for seven years at Birchview Elementary, says the students really look forward to getting the packs. The packs are delivered to the office, and then the teachers put the packs into their backpacks each Friday.

"Before winter break, they received an extra-large pack. One of my first graders excitedly said, 'ALL of this food is for me?'," recounts Lawson.

"We see too many kids who come to school without a snack during the day, who receive free breakfast and lunch here. We worry about what they aren't getting at home. We do all we can in the classroom, but it's so great to have something else to offer them when they leave," says Lawson.

Sundberg says a typical snack pack includes soup, cereal, oatmeal, a serving of fruit, a serving of vegetables, raisins or applesauce and yogurt or string cheese. And since Hematite Power Packs started, need for the packs has almost doubled in size to 62. With 50-60 percent of Ishpeming's students qualifying for free and reduced meal plans, Sundberg hopes they can reach even more students.

"I think the most important thing would be to spread the word about this program, so we can reach all the children of our community that need help," she says.

Because Hematite Power Packs is a parent initiative, it relies entirely on donations from individuals and businesses and help from volunteers.

"Fortunately, we know a lot of small business owners in the area, and they have been very, very generous." Sundberg says. As soon as she created a Facebook page for the group, donations came pouring in from families, businesses, and individuals volunteering to coordinate fundraisers.

Sundberg says the challenge now is to keep reaching out and looking for those in need. "I hope that the excitement for the program is just as big in the future as it is now. I hope that we can reach all the kids and families that just need a little extra help. I hope that it is spread to all the districts in Marquette County, and the U. P. for that matter," she says.

Editor's note: There are other programs like this one, such as at NICE Community Schools in West Ishpeming and elsewhere. Check with your local school district to see if they have a program like this if you are interested in making donations. 

Kerry Lucas is a freelance writer based in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. 
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