- August 12, 2009
MANATEE COUNTY — Nine-year-old Kaitlyn Delgadillo looks like any other at Freedom Elementary School.
But the third-grader is a beneficiary of a special program called Elks Feeding Empty Little Tummies. Each Friday, members of the Lakewood Ranch-Sarasota Elks Lodge 2855 pack up backpacks filled with enough food for the weekend for students in need at Freedom and Gene Witt elementary schools, who take home the backpacks over the weekend and return them empty each Monday morning.
Delgadillo, who eats both breakfast and lunch at the Freedom, said the food supplied in the backpacks keep her belly filled on weekends.
“It’s really good,” Kaitlyn says of the program she knows simply as the Backpack Club. “Some of (the foods in there) are my favorite foods. If I don’t like them, I can give them to my brothers or sister.
“It changed my life,” she says. “My mom can make more types of food. She’s happier.”
School administrators say the EFELT program is making a big difference at the school.
“We are their breakfast; we are their lunch,” Freedom Principal Jim Mennes said. “They might get something (at home), but is it nutritious? Is there (even) food in the house? (Because of the backpacks), we know they’re coming to us Monday ready to learn.”
The backpacks, Mennes said, also foster a sense of belonging to the school that otherwise would be left unfulfilled.
“They know we care for them beyond their education,” he said.
Witt Guidance Counselor Cathe Mapp, who coordinates with EFELT on behalf of Witt students, agreed.
“The children remember to come on Fridays,” she says. “You would think we were giving them bags of gold. They bring them back on Monday. They are so excited about it. It’s amazing.”
A GROWING NEED
In a portable at Freedom Elementary School, Elks members Mary Bilkie and Barb Grundy circle briskly around a grocery aisle-style shelf stocked with food. From tables around it, they pick up packages of food and deposit them into backpacks, which then are piled in a corner for delivery.
These backpacks are designated for children at Freedom and black backpacks in an opposite corner for children at Witt.
“I didn’t realize there were so many homeless,” Bilkie says, as she puts a can of soup in a bag. “I can’t imagine my son growing up living out of a car.”
“You don’t realize (the need),” she says. “There’re this many people without food.”
Currently, there are nearly 1,300 Manatee public school students who have been identified as homeless at some point within this school year, said social worker Deborah Bailey, who coordinates Manatee County Public Schools’ Project Heart program, which assists students and families who are or are at-risk of being homeless.
Tara, Bashaw, Braden River, Gullett, Witt, Freedom, McNeal and Willis elementary schools combined have more than 100 “homeless” students enrolled, excluding children in migrant families, and nearly 30 students between Lakewood Ranch and Braden River high schools are classified by the district as homeless, she says.
“There might have been more children in those schools (who have been homeless at some point),” she says. “There’s a lot of mobility with this population.”
Bailey says programs such as EFELT are making a big difference in the lives of Manatee’s youth, because homeless and at-risk children often lack stability, face overcrowding at home and don’t have a quiet place to do schoolwork, among other challenges.
“There are some kids who might not have sufficient food on the weekend without (the backpacks),” she says. “For those who (it is a pressing issue), that takes a lot of pressure off the family.”
Bilkie and Grundy say they are more than happy to help. They not only love being on campus, hearing the sounds of children on the playground while they pack, but also knowing that one of them could be a child who benefits from EFELT.
“I have no clue who it is (that gets the food), but it’s a good feeling to know you’re helping,” Bilkie says. “(This)’s one of the best hours I spend.”
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].
The Elks Feeding Empty Little Tummies program started in the summer of 2010 after members of the Bradenton Elks Lodge 1511 learned about the number of children receiving free and reduced-price lunches in Manatee County public schools.
The national Elks foundation provided a $10,000 grant to launch the program, which started at two schools in January 2011, Bradenton Elks Lodge EFELT coordinator and Exalted Ruler Jeff Mitchell said. It since has expanded to include 11 schools and feed about 470 children weekly.
The Lakewood Ranch-Sarasota Elks began assisting with an existing Backpack Club program, which was started in mid-2008 by East County student Stephanie Covey, who is now in college, in early 2011. It took over the program recently and began packing backpacks weekly, instead of monthly as before, after getting start-up support from the Bradenton lodge.
Lakewood Ranch-Sarasota Elks Exalted Ruler Rick Thorson, who oversees the EFELT East program, local Elks members are excited to participate and the organization always is seeking donations and other support for the cause.
“We’re concerned with what’s going on in our community — all Elks are,” Thorson said. “It takes about $1,000 a month to feed the children these children (in East County).”
Most recently, the EFELT earned a $1,500 grant March 8, from the Rotary Club of Lakewood Ranch.
Thorson said grants like the one from the Rotary help provide much-needed food for the Elks and help the organization continue its philanthropic efforts.
HOW TO HELP
Anyone wishing to make food donations should be sure to donate non-perishable, kid-friendly food items. Canned goods, for example, should have pull-top lids so children can prepare the food without a parent’s help.
Individuals also should assume families do not have access to a microwave.
Additionally, the Elks have a set “menu” for each week to simplify the food-purchasing process and make it more cost effective.
Menu items are listed as follows: apple sauce in cups, small cans of beans (pop top), small cans of meat, small cans of vegetables, individual servings of beef ravioli, individual servings of beef stew, cheese crackers, fruit and granola bars, ramen noodles, canned fruit cocktail, pudding cups, fruit cups, juice boxes, raisins, shelf-ready single-serving cereals, boxed macaroni-n-cheese and dental hygiene products such as soap and shampoo.
Individuals wishing to contribute to the cause or volunteer can contact Rick Thorson at 981-5726.
For more info on the Lakewood Ranch-Sarasota Elks, visit www.lwrelks.org. For more on EFELT, visit www.bradentonelks1511.org.