By Anne Marie Amacher
BETTENDORF — St. John Vianney Parish has teamed up with Neil Armstrong Elementary School in Bettendorf for a pilot backpack program. Each month the parish fills 50 backpacks with snacks and delivers them to Armstrong for children in need to take home so they have something to eat, said Father Robert McAleer, St. John Vianney’s pastor.
Nicky Stevenson, who coordinates religious education at the parish, said the backpacks go home with students the last Friday of the month. “Usually at the end of the month food stamps are gone and families have little or nothing to eat.”
Stevenson, who works part-time at Armstrong, said families at the school were invited to participate. Most receive the school district’s free-lunch program. “Some of these kids have only their free breakfast and lunch for meals. They don’t always get dinner. With this program we can give them some food to stretch out until the next set of food stamps comes in.”
Parishioners donate ready-to-eat items. In addition to the food donations dropped off, the parish collects food items during family events at the parish. And each grade level in the religious education program sponsors a month for the backpacks. More than 500 students are enrolled in religious education at St. John Vianney.
On the last Thursday of the month, volunteers pack the items at the parish. “It only takes about 20 minutes to do 50 backpacks with all of the volunteers that come,” Stevenson said.
She said the parish also has been looking at ways to serve Haiti. She decided to look for a local initiative too, in addition to the parish’s support of the local food pantry and came up with the backpack idea. “We talked to the kids about helping people just down the street from where they live. It has been well received.”
Stevenson said she has received positive feedback. The religious education students see that they are helping youths their age; for some, it might even be their friends. And parents and students at Armstrong have shared their appreciation of the parish for the food items.
“On behalf of the students and staff at Neil Armstrong Elementary School I send a special thank you to the St. John Vianney Parish Community for the wonderful work with the backpack with snacks program,” read one note that Stevenson received. “… The caring community of SJV is making this program successful. We have many families struggling and this program is helping to reduce some learning barriers.”
Another note read, “Thank you, thank you from the bottom of our hearts – we appreciate the kindness you are showing to our children and families in need. The smiles on the children’s faces as they toted home their packs with goodies were a sight to behold.”
The backpack idea is based on a national program. The success at Armstrong may result in the local program being expanded to Bettendorf Middle School with a different area church participating in that effort, Stevenson said. In large cities, filled backpacks are sent home weekly. “That was over our heads. So we did our own version.”
The next packing night is Nov. 18 and distribution will be Nov. 19.