A growing number of local students are leaving school Friday afternoons with more to draw from than a week’s worth of learning.
Volunteers at Zebulon United Methodist Church have formed a satellite location of the nonprofit organization North East Wake Backpack Buddies, delivering enough food to last through the weekend to students who receive free and reduced lunches at school. Since its Oct. 30 debut, the Zebulon program has been serving three schools – Wakelon Elementary, Zebulon Elementary and Zebulon Middle – and 15 students at each school.
“There’s such a large percentage of free and reduced lunch students, it means a lot of times students are going without food through the weekend when they aren’t in school,” said Cheryl Crumpler, who played a key role in bringing Backpack Buddies to town. “As far as school goes, if kids are hungry they’re not learning. This is hopefully bridging the gap.”
Coincidence, or perhaps fate, turned Crumpler’s attention toward North East Wake Backpack Buddies, which originated out of Rolesville Baptist Church about 10 years ago and is a separate entity from the similar service offered by the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle that goes by the same name.
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The retired teacher attended a ZUMC circle group meeting on ministry opportunities, and she left with benevolence on her mind. Soon after, she bumped into one of her former student’s parents who she knew was active with the North East Wake operation, and she considered it a sign.
The circle group members reached out to Backpack Buddies and were trained in the organization’s workflow prior to their first week on the job.
Counting its latest addition, North East Wake Backpack Buddies now serves 17 schools – most of them in the Rolesville and Wake Forest area.
“Their program in Zebulon looks exactly like ours, it’s just on a smaller scale,” said Lena Gott of North East Wake Backpack Buddies. “And we’re fortunate to have a huge support base and are fortunate enough to be able to give them funds for their program.”
The goal is to provide bags of mostly canned items that won’t spoil and that don’t require cooking on a stove, Gott said. Each bag also contains a couple fruit items.
“We try to provide three square meals, plus enough snacks to get them through the weekend,” Gott said. “A lot of people think about these types of things around the holidays, but for us this is something we do all year long.”
On normal school weeks, the 12 or so volunteers in Zebulon work to assemble the bags on Thursdays and deliver them to the schools on Fridays.
They’ve reached out to U.S. Foods, which has agreed to give the local service discounts on its first five orders of items the company can supply, Crumpler said. Purchases in the early going are being made every six weeks, but she expects to have to purchase more food and more frequently in the near future.
“Each week, we go through 70 pounds of food with just the 45 kids,” Crumpler said. “After Christmas, we may be doubling our numbers.”
Crumpler wishes Zebulon was a hotbed for year-round schools, so that the Backpack program could continue to serve area youth into the summer months.
“I wish it did go beyond the school year, but I’m grateful we’re seeing it being accepted so well in the schools,” she said. “I’m just happy it’s being done.”
For now, she’s thinking about what it will take to keep the operation running smoothly when it takes on more clients. She wants to train more volunteers and get different groups of people involved – whether it be children or adults, who may work during the day but can find time for a shift packing bags in the evening.
Donations to the Zebulon Backpack Buddies pantry are always welcome, but the list of needed food items is specific. For more information, call Crumpler at 919-760-0116.