"This program reaches so many people"
Millikin University student-run organization Big Blue Backpacks is once again beginning another year of providing nourishment and wellness for students in need at Dennis Lab School in Decatur, Ill. The organization officially kicked off its fourth year of providing bags of food for students during a press conference held at the Good Samaritan Inn on Sept. 6, 2019.
With the support of private donors in the community as well as local agencies, Big Blue Backpacks purchases food items and packs them into bags to give to students for over-the-weekend nourishment. The program benefits the children at Dennis Lab School in so many ways including their attendance rates, health, academic success and confidence in self.
Over the last three years the organization has provided just under 150,000 food items to students at Dennis.
Big Blue Backpacks provides food bags for 80 students over 27 weeks during the school year, and has provided meals for over 500 students in the last three years. Members of Big Blue Backpacks put the bags together every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 12 noon at the Good Samaritan Inn and they are distributed to students the following Friday.
Backpacks go home every Friday filled with two breakfast meals, three dinners, two lunches, two snack items and hygiene products.
"My students continue to make a significant difference in the lives of students at Dennis School by providing weekly backpacks for those in need," said Mary Garrison, professor of social work at Millikin University and Big Blue Backpacks faculty adviser. "Through their commitment to ensuring the provision of food each week my students are learning leadership skills, the importance of giving and seeing that their work makes an impact."
Big Blue Backpacks was created and launched in Sept. 2016 with the goal of providing seven weekend meals for 80 Dennis Lab School students each weekend during the academic year.
"The Big Blue Backpacks program provides the wrap-around services on the weekends for our students to have those needs met."
Examples of common items found in the bags include granola bars, oatmeal, breakfast bars, noodles, soups, canned vegetables, pasta, macaroni, gummy bears, fruit snacks, pudding cups and fruit cups.
Keith Creighton, assistant principal at Dennis Lab School and a 2000 Millikin graduate, expressed his gratitude for the Big Blue Backpacks program. "It is said that it takes a village to raise a child and the Big Blue Backpacks program is a perfect example of that quote manifested. Times during the year where households are uncertain of having enough food to meet the needs of all family members is referred to by the USDA as food insecurity. The Big Blue Backpacks program provides the wrap-around services on the weekends for our students to have those needs met," he said.
Big Blue Backpacks member Joycelyn VanAntwerp, a junior psychology major form Kewanee, Ill., says her interest in helping children led her to joining the program.
"This is the perfect opportunity to help meet a need that is not only in Decatur but all over the United States," she said. "It's nice to know that this is helping kids and I think about that every time we pack the food – all this work is for them and it's going to make them better. It think it's really important for older students to get involved and help younger students so that we can build up a generation of kids who want to help and want to give back."
This year, Big Blue Backpacks is currently seeking financial donations to raise $9,000 to supply enough food for 80 students.
Big Blue Backpacks' ongoing donation options include several different levels of sponsorships for giving including:
- Desk: $80 feeds one child for an entire school year
- Lunch Table: $800 feeds 10 children for an entire school year
- Classroom: $2,000 feeds 25 children for an entire school year
- School Bus: $4,000 feeds 50 children for an entire school year
Rev. Stacey Brohard, executive director of the Good Samaritan Inn, shared his thoughts on the importance of collaboration for the community. "Four years ago, we knew that we had a need that needed to be met in Decatur, and it's often said that the solutions to our problems are right here in our own community," he said. "This program reaches so many people. It takes a community to make this happen and the students are always looking forward to expanding this program every year."