Backpack Buddies fills a need

Published 12:49 pm Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Leigh Ann Smyth, right facing, shares a laugh with fellow Junior League of Birmingham member Kim Rowlen while packing bags for the Backpack Buddies program at the Inverness Vineyard Church on Valleydale on Jan. 22. (Reporter Photo/Jon Goering)


NORTH SHELBY – Cans of beef ravioli, packages of Easy Mac and pudding packs sat in stacks Jan. 22, waiting for volunteers to pack them into bags for hungry children.

Five women from the Junior League of Birmingham meet at Inverness Vineyard Church for their service project every other week to pack 168 bags for the Backpack Buddies program.

Backpack Buddies is a part of Vineyard Family Services. The program targets children, ages 5 to 12, who are on free or reduced lunches in public schools. The kids typically need additional snacks or meals over the weekend, and are too young to walk to a store for food, Program Director Stephanie Grissom said.

“Last year, over 8,000 kids were on free or reduced lunch. We have 9,100 this year,” Grissom said. “Even families who never needed help before are needing help.”

Backpack Buddies helps children in 17 Shelby County public schools, targeting the schools with at least 50 percent of students on free or reduced lunches. Executive Director Ward Williams said some of the schools have more than 70 percent of students in need.

The Junior League of Birmingham, only one of 20 sponsors, gave a $16,300 grant to purchase food for the program. The grant specifically assists Elvin Hill and Shelby elementary schools and Montevallo Middle School.

Each sponsoring group packs food for the schools the group supports.

All of the food is “shelf stable and easy to open by little kids,” Grissom said. Each bag contains enough food for two breakfasts, two lunches and additional snacks and drinks.

The schools’ counselors discreetly give the bags to the students each Friday, Grissom said.

Leigh Ann Smyth, a member of the Junior League, said the league’s members are assigned to projects for a year, but many choose to continue with Backpack Buddies.

“For me, it’s such a special service project because we’re making a difference with children who are in need,” Smyth said. “The kids can know, ‘There’s something in my tummy, so I don’t have to worry about my next meal.’ It really makes a difference for children.”