Kennewick backpack program a hit

Loretto J. Hulse, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 16, 2014 

Afterschool backpacks

Kennewick police officer Remie Rees helps Esperanza Wacenske, 9, of Kennewick with her new backpack Thursday at Eastgate Elementary School in Kennewick. The Tri-Cities Food Bank, the Cathedral of Joy and the Tri-Cities Fever have started an after school program giving away a backpack full of food that students can bring back each week for a refill. From left back are John Neill, Executive Director of the Tri-Cities Food Bank, Officer Seth Reil, Sgt. Mark Weber and Cmdr. Craig Littrell.

PAUL T. ERICKSON — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

The grins on the faces of the students said it all -- the new backpack program at Eastgate Elementary School in Kennewick is a hit.

The first backpacks, filled with a variety of nonperishable foods, were distributed to about 30 students on Thursday. The children come from low-income households, and the food is intended to help feed their families.

The backpacks contained small boxes of cereal, macaroni and cheese, granola bars, cans of chili, single-serving containers of applesauce and fruit, and cans of green beans.

The idea is to have two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners -- about 10 easy-to-prepare food items the kids can make for themselves and younger siblings, said John Neill, executive director of Tri-Cities Food Bank.

The food bank is partnering with the Cathedral of Joy to provide the food once a week.

As the backpacks were handed out, the children scarcely stepped out of line before unzipping them and digging with gusto normally reserved for bags of Halloween candy.

"Look, peanut butter," said one, holding the jar high.

"I have cereal and corn and crackers," called out another.

One 11-year-old girl was all smiles as she pawed through hers. There are about 10 people living at her house, she said, "and our family barely has any food. I'm happy to get this and I'll be happy next week too."

The children will take the food home and return the empty backpacks to the school to be refilled.

The food this week came from the food bank shelves.

"We had extra because of all the holiday food drives," Neill said.

A grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Cathedral of Joy -- whose members volunteer with social service programs -- will help pay for the food going forward, with supplements from the food bank.

The grant money is administered through the United Way and runs from January through June 30, said Renee Matson, who is spearheading the backpack program at the church.

Eastgate was chosen for the pilot program because there are many at-risk children in the neighborhood and it already has an After School Matters program in place.

After School Matters is a joint venture between volunteers from the Cathedral of Joy and several Tri-Cities Fever football players -- primarily Lionell Singleton and Brandon Wilson.

After School Matters was Singleton's brainchild in 2011. He served as the organization's director.

"I have a passion to help kids. That's what gets me up in the morning, the smiles and giggles of the kids," Singleton said.

Children in the After School Matters program at Eastgate get almost two hours of help with homework, tutoring, physical fitness and recreation three times a week. There's another After School Matters program at Park Middle School.

On Thursday, Tri-Cities Fever owner Teri Carr announced the team organization is sponsoring an After School Matters program at Jefferson Elementary School in Richland. It met for the first time on Wednesday with six children. But Bobbi Buttars, principal at Jefferson, expects up to 30 when they meet again on Tuesday.

Singleton is also talking to the Pasco School District about starting an After School Matters program in one of its schools, he said.

"It would be a wonderful blessing to be able to expand the program, not just in the Tri-Cities but nationally," Singleton said.

The adults who assist in the program are volunteers from the church, the community and Tri-Cities Fever football players.

"You've never head a story read until you've heard Lionell (Singleton) read it," Matson said.

There's also a mentoring component. Singleton believes relationships between caring adults and youth are the difference between youth staying in school and being successful or making choices that lead to dropping out, gang involvement and drug use.

"The whole idea of this program is to give kids something to do after school. Just like teenagers, if elementary kids don't have enough to do they make bad decisions," Neill said. "This gives them help with things they're not getting at home."

Buttars agreed.

"If a child can connect with one positive role model they will succeed," she said.

The staff at Jefferson set up an informal food cupboard with backpacks at the school last spring, Buttars said. Members of the ABATE motorcycle chapter donate food and volunteer to help fill backpacks and pass them out. About 20 to 30 backpacks are handed out at Jefferson each week.

To contribute to the After School Matters program or the food backpack program, contact Renee Matson at Cathedral of Joy, 460-6114. To contact Lionell Singleton, send an email to lionellsing22@gmail.com.

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-- Loretto J. Hulse: 582-1513; lhulse@tricityherald.com

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