Big Blue Backpacks Kicks Off Seventh Year

Millikin student- run organization addresses food insecurity in local schools

Four people listening to a speaker at a podium

People listening to a speaker

On September 1, Big Blue Backpacks, Millikin University’s student-run organization that addresses food insecurity in local elementary schools, kicked off their seventh year of service on a bittersweet note. Mary Garrison, former professor of social work at Millikin and faculty advisor for Big Blue Backpacks since its inception in 2015-2016, said her goodbyes to the program and shared her wishes for its future. 

Garrison announced that Marty Brilley, campus chaplain at Millikin, will be stepping in as faculty advisor for the organization during the coming year. Brilley, who also oversees the Big Blue Pantry on Millikin’s campus, will continue to move Big Blue Backpacks forward in their mission to serve students. 

Student representatives of Big Blue Backpacks, along with representatives from the Decatur Public Schools Foundation, Dennis Lab School and American Dreamers STEM Academy, were present at the kick-off event to discuss the program and its accomplishments. “Over the last six years alone, we have provided over 280,000 food items for the students and food bags for more than 100 students over 27 weekends each year,” Kendall Rossignol, co-chair of Big Blue Backpacks and elementary education major, remarked. 


A person speaking


When Big Blue Backpacks was formed, following a year of planning and development, their initial goal was to provide 80 backpacks full of food to students at Dennis Lab School. Since then, they have expanded to providing food to 100-160 students at both Dennis Lab School campuses, along with the American Dreamers STEM Academy, every weekend during the school year. The organization also protects the privacy of students receiving food.

    • This program benefits the children in so many ways, including their attendance rates, health, academic success and self-confidence,
    — Kendall Rossignol, co-chair of Big Blue Backpacks
  • As a not-for-profit organization, Big Blue Backpacks operates entirely on support from the community. Garrison remarked that the Big Blue Backpacks hub is located within the Good Samaritan Inn. Aly Barnes, Big Blue Backpacks co-chair, commented on the community's involvement.

    • This is a program for the community, funded by the community. We are dependent on community support to keep this program going.
    — Aly Barnes, Big Blue Backpacks co-chair
  • Barnes gave thanks to several supporters in the community, such as Dennis Lab School, Ballance Foundation, the Good Samaritan Inn, Aldi Food Stores and the WSOY Annual Food Drive for their contributions to Big Blue Backpacks over the years.

    “We are looking to have another successful year and encourage the public to get involved in Big Blue Backpacks,” Barnes said, explaining that the organization needs to raise $10,000 for the coming year to supply enough food for up to 160 students. 

    They offer several donation options with different levels of sponsorship:

    • For $80 you can sponsor a desk; this will feed one child for a school year.
    • For $800 you can sponsor a lunch table; this will feed 10 children for a school year.
    • For $2,000 you can sponsor a classroom; this will feed 25 children for a school year.
    • For $4,000 you can sponsor a school bus; this will feed 50 children for a school year.

    While Big Blue Backpacks significantly impacts the children who receive food each week, the students involved at Millikin University also benefit through service and hands-on learning. “This connects with a lot of my time spent at Millikin with Performance Learning. That’s what we do with our students. They are the ones who make this happen. It is truly run by the students,” Mary Garrison explained. Since the start of Big Blue Backpacks 35 Millikin students have been involved. The students care a great deal about the program, and those who are currently participating were recruited by previous members. 

    Big blue backpacks volunteers


    Big Blue Backpacks focuses on one year at a time, providing seven meals and snacks each weekend to all the students they can, along with food to The Little Pantry that sits outside of the Dennis Lab School Kaleidoscope Campus. However, all of the students and individuals involved with the organization have hopes for future growth, whether that means serving more meals, more schools or even a truck delivering food directly to students’ homes. Rachel Dick, counselor at Dennis School, said that she would love to see the program come full circle.

    • We’d love to see them go to Millikin and be part of the program
    — Rachel Dick, counselor at Dennis School
  • Many of the students who were originally enrolled in the program to receive food are now in high school. “The students will tell you how much it’s impacted their life; being able to leave on Friday, have food, come back to school, and be able to perform to the best of their abilities,” Dick commented. 

    For those interested in supporting Big Blue Backpacks, please contact Marty Brilley at