ELMA — For a lot of teenagers, it’s hard enough fitting in at school and achieving academic success — even under the best of circumstances.
Imagine how hard it must be when the teen is homeless or wondering where his or her next meal is coming from.
Some of the adults from programs designed to help those kids say there are more struggling teenagers than most people imagine. And one of the many complicating factors in helping them is the need to do it discreetly, so the teens don’t risk being ostracized. That is the goal of a relatively new charity in Grays Harbor County — Homeless Backpacks Inc.
Originally launched in Thurston County in 2006, Homeless Backpacks Inc. provides food for the weekend to homeless teens in the region. Typically, the students are in government-supported meal programs during the school week, but many must fend for themselves on the weekends.
Volunteers from the organization host weekly “packing parties” then deliver backpacks loaded with food to get those teens through the weekend, helping them concentrate on academics rather than where their next meal might come from.
“It gives them a little help for the weekend,” said Tammy Walker, who is one of the organizers of the new Grays Harbor chapter of Homeless Backpacks, along with Program Director Kim Heck and Madalene Barnes — all are also board members of the fledgling charity.
“This gives those students in need one less thing they worry about so they can focus on their education,” added Walker.
The Grays Harbor chapter, formed in 2010, is currently under the auspices of the Thurston County organization, but has seen such success with its pilot program in Elma and McCleary middle and high schools that it’s on the path to becoming self-sufficient and expanding into more Grays Harbor schools and communities. Right now, only 42 students in East County are being served, but the local chapter would like to be serving hundreds countywide in the near future. Already they’ve seen interest from schools in Montesano, Aberdeen, Hoquiam and Ocean Shores.
“It’s new to Grays Harbor,” Walker said. “We’re still being supported by the Thurston County organization, so the number of students we can serve is capped right now. Our intention is to be on our own by September.”
But there’s still a lot of work to do, and to that end Grays Harbor Homeless Backpacks Inc. is looking for volunteers and donations to aid their cause. The organization got a big lift recently when it garnered the support of the Leadership Grays Harbor 2012 group to help in fundraising and word-of-mouth backing. Leadership Grays Harbor is an offshoot of Greater Grays Harbor Inc., and brings together business and community leaders in a year-long effort to grow leadership and networking skills.
“Ultimately, the Grays Harbor leadership group realized that there is a significant number of troubled teens in our area and that we are really passionate about supporting these kids while we can so that they can move past their situation and go on to be successful adults,” said Barnes, who first got involved as a member of the 2012 Leadership Grays Harbor class, then joined the Homeless Backpack board.
“For me, personally, and I think much of the group would agree, I was sold on Homeless Backpacks when they said the kids have to be enrolled in school, because I realized it wasn’t just a ‘handout’ program.” Barnes said. “Homeless Backpacks in Thurston County has a proven track record for increasing attendance and for the overall morals of its recipients. Also, the program is new to the area and we wanted to help bring attention to not only their charity, but to the issue at hand as well. The reality is that there are a tremendous number of teens in our area who have to worry about something as basic as food when they’re not at school, and that just doesn’t settle well with us.”
“It’s sort of taken off like wildfire so we’re recruiting community members to do fundraising for us so we can become fully self-sufficient,” Walker said. “We’re an all-volunteer organization.”
There are scads of volunteer opportunities, from packing parties to backpack deliveries to inventory, shopping and donation pick-ups.
Those who can’t volunteer can help through donations of food or cash to buy food. Cash donations may be made at Anchor Bank in downtown Aberdeen, or at any local Anchor Bank branch. Checks should be made out to Homeless Backpack Inc.
Single servings of of items such as the following are most helpful according to organization officials: Protein (chili, ravioli, tuna, jerky), milk boxes (unrefrigerated), juice boxes (6.75 oz), granola bars, ramen noodles, snacks (cracker, cookies), microwave popcorn and instant oatmeal. They also can use donations of gift cards to local grocery stores and fast-food restaurants to supplement students during extended school breaks.
Brenda Corkum, a counselor in the Elma School District, has seen the impact of the program firsthand, as it’s school counselors who help seek and screen the students in most need of some aid. Thirty-eight students are receiving backpacks at Elma High and the middle school.
“It’s been an outstanding program,” Corkum said. “It helps these kids stay focused and in school. I’ve seen less absences on Mondays from these students because of it. And they just feel appreciative that somebody is doing something extra for them. I think it is one of the best student-focused programs in terms of helping with the nutritional aspects of a kid’s life when they’re not in school.”
And that translates to an easier time at school.
“I think it takes some of the stress off them, knowing they can rely on this extra food for themselves,” Corkum said. “And the kids are so thankful every week when they pick up their backpacks. It’s really neat to see.”
Those wishing to donate food to Homeless Backpacks can drop-off items at The Daily World, Worksource Grays Harbor, Grays Harbor PUD, and Anchor Bank branches in Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Montesano and Elma. Those wishing to volunteer, help with fundraising or make a cash donation can call Heck at (360) 470-2122, Walker at (360) 346-0208 or Barnes at (360) 538-6347.