Blessings in a Backpack program helps feed youngsters on weekends

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Blessings in a Backpack wants to make sure kids in need do not go hungry on the weekends -- when they do not have access to school lunches.

"It is one link to a whole bunch of links to help our educational system do a better job" is how Chuck Neff, a board member of the Kentucky-based nonprofit, described the program.

The non-denominational Washington Christian Outreach in Washington, Pa., administers Blessings in a Backpack at two schools: Transformation Learning in Claysville and Washington Park Primary School in Washington.

Each Friday, volunteers distribute backpacks filled with nonperishable food for the weekend to youngsters who meet the federal guidelines for a free or reduced-price lunch. On Mondays, students bring back the empty backpacks so they can be refilled on Fridays.

Each of the 750 backpacks that will be packed for the two schools will include a granola bar, fruit bar, package of instant oatmeal, package of cereal, 100 percent apple juice, cheese crackers, a can of chicken noodle soup and a pudding snack pack.

Through Sept. 13, the outreach program and Washington Crown Center mall are partnering to solicit donations for the backpack program.

On Friday and Saturday, red boxes marked for donations will be placed outside Macy's in conjunction with the Back to School BASH at the mall on West Chestnut Street in North Franklin.

All other days, shoppers are asked to drop off nonperishable food items or school supplies in red boxes at the mall's management office by Sears. Mall hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays.

Donations also are accepted from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday year-round at the Washington Christian Outreach, 119 Highland Ave.

Blessings in a Backpack kicks off its third year on Wednesday.

All items are bought with donated funds. Costs are kept at a minimum through Blessings in a Backpack's nationwide purchasing program.

The cost to fill a backpack for a school year for one student is about $80.

Mr. Neff, 75, of South Strabane said the need for the program is evident in that 73 percent of students in Washington, Pa., come from families whose income is below the poverty line.

Washington Christian Outreach was founded 35 years ago by Jeanne Allender, 78, of Washington. Mrs. Allender was conducting a Bible study and someone handed her a bag of used clothing to distribute to those in need. As more items were brought to her, she worked at her home, on her porch and from her car trunk sorting and delivering the donations.

"I didn't know what God was doing at the time, but he was giving me a big vision for the community," she recalled.

To help fulfill the material and spiritual needs of the needy throughout the area, she began the outreach program, which today operates a soup kitchen, among other programs.

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Margaret Smykla, freelance writer:


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