Rotary Club members know that at their weekly meetings they will usually be fed. Mind, body and soul have the potential to be nourished. At one such Dresden lunch meeting, the information stirred a small group of members to cook up a program that now feeds more than 300 Weakley County students throughout each school year. When Amy Tuck, then the county coordinator for school health, came to speak to the Dresden Rotary on school nutrition issues almost 10 years ago, she referenced obesity and menu changes focusing on healthy food. But she also noted the number of children in Tennessee who are hungry.
That singular fact caught the attention of then Rotary President Jake Bynum and member Colin Johnson. Then she shared what some schools were doing about it – projects known as Backpack Programs. These efforts continue today as they fill the weekend void in “food insecure homes.” Each week bags of food items are provided to previously identified students. Teachers, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers attuned to students asking for seconds and showing other signs of hunger compile a list of recipients. The bags are compiled by volunteers who never know the names of the recipients. They are distributed each Friday in the backpacks of the students by school counselors or designated staff.
Not long after the talk, a pilot program in Dresden was launched. Colin and LeAnne Johnson, Jake and Alyssa Bynum, Amy Tuck and others reached out to Dresden Elementary and asked what grade had the highest need. The first grade was selected and ultimately a total of 17 students received weekend food coverage in the form of bags of beanie weenies, raviolis, juice boxes, breakfast bars and other items from the Dollar General Store. If the identified students also had siblings in school, the bags reflected that need as well.
After a successful pilot, the work expanded to included K-4th grade in schools throughout the county. Each year more students were included in what eventually became the Weakley County Backpack Program and the formation of a non-profit organization. And by the fourth year, the program encompassed all grades.
Feeding more than 300 students every weekend for the entire school year requires far more work than that initial small group could handle. Along the way, more helpers were added. The current board includes Colin Johnson, president; LeAnne Johnson, Lori Mathis, Mary Margaret Chester, Melanie Johnson, Martha Killebrew, and Bethany Allen. Food purchases are made through Second Harvest in Nashville. Mitchell Transport now ensures that the tubs of food bags are delivered to each school weekly. First Baptist Church Dresden provides the space for the assembling of the bags. More than 120 volunteers assist with the assembly process, including Melanie Johnson’s stepfather Doug Shook and Donald Davis from FBC Dresden, who come early to help Melanie with labeling tubs. Loading and unloading of the food from Second Harvest are accomplished by members of Elk Lodge and sheriff department deputies. At the various schools, the tubs may be unloaded by members of Rolling Thunder, other volunteers, students and, often, the football teams.
To find out more about donating to or volunteering with Weakley County Backpack program, visit their website at www.weakleycountybackpack.com or follow them on Facebook.
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