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North Hills Monthly

Backpack Programs Provide Kids with Comfort, Food

Dec 30, 2015 11:13AM ● By Shelly Tower Rushe

The Foster Love Project was started by Kelly Hughes to help provide foster children with something to call their own.

Backpacks are typically filled with pencils, paper, notebooks and books. Around our area, however, they’re being filled with promises of hope for those in need.

A few years ago in Pittsburgh, Kelly Hughes (known for her Pgh Momtourage website), her husband, and their two children became a first-time foster family. Three children, ages 8 months to 5 years, were suddenly on their doorstep. “I didn’t realize how overwhelming it would be!” she recalled.

Over the next several years, the family would welcome seven foster children, adopting two of them. While each child and set of circumstances was different, one thing remained constant: the children routinely showed up with very little to call their own. Usually all of their belongings were transported in a trash bag. Blankets were ragged, and comfort items, such as a favorite stuffed animal, were nonexistent.

Hughes’ biological children always picked out some of their own stuffed animals to share, but the experience sparked an idea. Hughes created the Foster Love Project to provide placement bags for children going into foster care. Each donated, zippered duffel bag or backpack holds age-appropriate pajamas, a small blanket, bath soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, a stuffed animal (or pillow for teen bags) and a book. Those wishing to help with infant bags are encouraged to include formula, diapers and bottles. Teen bags may include deodorant, journals, or small flashlights.

While Hughes’ goal in 2014 was to collect 300 filled bags to share with their foster agency, the Bair Foundation, they ended up collecting 1,300 donated bags in drop-off locations around the area, and the results were far-reaching. Bags were distributed over the year to roughly 15 organizations throughout Allegheny, Butler and Westmoreland Counties. “I had friends who foster that would send pictures and say ‘Look what showed up with my new foster child!’” said Hughes.

The Foster Love Project continued in 2015, and while the totals collected are not yet available, Hughes added that there has been an unexpected benefit to the program. “There wasn’t a lot of information about fostering, so this has opened a lot of doors to awareness,” she said.

The Foster Love Facebook page is always active with more information on how to help throughout the year and 2016 drive information will soon be posted. If you’re thinking of donating, Hughes stresses the need for gift cards. “Cards for Subway, Pizza Hut, Target and Wal-Mart are great,” she said. “These families need to be able to grab quick meals and supplies.”

Seneca Valley School District is also taking an innovative approach to backpack donations. While it may seem hard to believe that food insecurity is an issue in such a rapidly growing area, teachers and administrators at Haine Elementary School could see the physical, emotional and academic toll that hunger was taking on some of its students. Students receiving reduced-cost or free meals during the school week did not have the same access to food on the weekends, so Principal Mandy Toy took action. She worked with Grace Community Church in Cranberry Township and The Lighthouse Food Bank in Butler to create the Full Table Project Weekend Backpack Feeding Program.

“Each week, volunteers meet at the Lighthouse Food Bank to hand-pack bags. Each bag typically contains two breakfast items, two lunch items and two snacks,” noted Toy. During extended school breaks, additional food is included.

Currently 125 students at Haine receive weekly food bags, but it doesn’t end there. “This project continues to grow as funding allows,” said Toy. “We’ve now been blessed to include additional schools in our community. Rowan Elementary and Evans City Elementary students have also started receiving weekend food bags.” Anyone interested in helping pack bags or in sponsoring a backpack for the Full Table Project effort can contact Grace Community Church.

Similar programs have popped up in the Fox Chapel School District, North Hills School District and Deer Lakes School District, just to name a few. The Backpacks for Hunger program in Fox Chapel was started two years ago by school counselors and currently provides 70 Kerr Elementary and Hartwood Elementary students with nutritious food every Friday during the school year. The Rotary Club of Fox Chapel Area recently provided the group with an $11,000 grant to continue the program. 

If you are in need of food assistance, please contact your local food bank or school administration for more information.