Backpack ministry helps hungry kids

Efforts of Marysville parishioners expand weekend food program for low-income students

 Making backpack kits
St. Mary’s parishioner Jim LaMontagne, second from right, helps fellow volunteers Kenn Harner, left, Bob Bushey and Amy Howell sort food for the backpacks of low-income elementary students in Snohomish County. Howell coordinates the “Food for Thought” program for the Marysville Community Food Bank. Photo: John Wolcott


By John Wolcott

It’s all about feeding the kids.

That’s what motivates Darlene Fails, who helped start a “backpack ministry” at St. Mary’s Parish in Marysville to help the local food bank provide weekend meals for low-income children. “When kids are in school with empty stomachs, it’s hard for them to concentrate on their studies,” Fails said.

In 2011, 75 percent of the Marysville School District’s elementary students received free or reduced-price meals at school. Through the backpack program, some of these students don’t have to go hungry over the weekend.

“Because of the weekend meals delivered by the backpack ministry, teachers have reported those students have shown improved attendance, behavior, grades and participation in class,” Fails said.

Each Thursday, volunteers from St. Mary’s gather at the Marysville Community Food Bank to help with its Food for Thought program. They assemble packs of nutritious food that will carry students through the weekend. Volunteers deliver the food to the elementary schools, where staffers discreetly put the food inside the eligible students’ backpacks (their identities are kept confidential). Extra food is included for siblings.

The food bank program was launched in May 2012 with the original aim of providing weekend food packages for 20 students at one school. The goal was to expand the program, but the food bank had few volunteers and resources to do it. Then help came from St. Mary’s, its backdoor neighbor.

Fails and her husband, John, began recruiting volunteers and raising money. Fails, a parish council member, brought the proposal to the council and St. Mary’s pastor, Father Jay DeFolco. “He saw it as an important new outreach program for our parish,” she said. “From the beginning, our parish has helped our backpack ministry grow by leaps and bounds.”

As the 2014 school year concludes, volunteers are helping provide food for 268 students at 11 elementary schools in the Marysville district and the nearby Lakewood School District. “Without the extra volunteers from St. Mary’s … to help assemble the food packs and do deliveries, plus the financial contributions from the church, we would not be able to reach those 268 children in need,” said Amy Howell, who manages the program for the food bank.

John and Darlene Fails
John and Darlene Fails of St. Mary’s Parish in Marysville lead the parish’s backpack ministry, which provides weekend meals to needy elementary students. Darlene sits on the parish council and John is a member of the Knights of Columbus. Photo: John Wolcott

At St. Mary’s, the ministry is supported by 18 parishioners; eight of them (including John Fails) are members of the parish’s Knights of Columbus Council 7863. Through fundraising breakfasts by the Knights, bake sales and raffles, the program continues to gain financial support and volunteers, Fails said. Parishioners have collected school supplies for the program as well as toothbrushes, toothpaste and other toiletries. In May, the Knights received a statewide award for their involvement in the program.

In addition, St. Mary’s donated its $14,795 rebate from the 2013 Annual Catholic Appeal to the food bank for the backpack program. Any rebate from this year’s appeal will also benefit the outreach ministry, Fails said. There are plans for the program to expand next school year.

The concept may spread to other parishes in the region. After Fails gave a presentation at a Knights of Columbus event in Everett, women from parishes in Bellingham and Snohomish County expressed interest in starting similar programs, she said.

“One of the best things about the whole program is the wonderful fun we have doing this,” Fails said, “and the inspiring camaraderie all of us feel in working together to help hungry kids.”

June 6, 2014