Backpacks of hope: food bank helps chronically hungry students

Imagine going to bed hungry Friday night, continuing through the weekend with no meals on Saturday or Sunday; then heading back to school Monday morning on an empty stomach. About one-fourth of children in Colorado don’t need to imagine this scenario; they live it.

“Nearly one in four kids in Colorado are living in what we call food insecure households and really struggle to have enough food,” explained Janie Gianotsos, director of marketing for Food Bank of the Rockies. “A lot of families that choose between heat and food, medicine and food, transportation and food.”

About 5,000 children in northern Colorado who might otherwise have to wait till Monday for a meal—including more than 1,500 in metro-area Catholic schools—are getting help through a program called Totes of Hope.

Totes of Hope, founded by Food Bank of the Rockies in 2006, provides bags of nutritious kid-friendly food to students on Fridays at the end of the school day. The student takes the bag home for the weekend then returns the empty bag to be refilled the following week.

Originally the program served public schools. In 2011, Tom Heule, a volunteer with Seeds of Hope, a nonprofit that supports economically disadvantaged children through tuition at Catholic schools, led the charge to implement it in Catholic schools as well. The program was piloted at Annunciation School, one of neediest in the archdiocese where 100 percent of its 200 children receive free or reduced lunches, and the average annual family income ranges from $22,000 to $27,000.

“Sadly for some of families, this isn’t just their food for the weekend,” said principal Deb Roberts. “We have families who really need one bag per child because these are their groceries for the week.”

The program operates a partnership between the Office of Catholic Schools, Seeds of Hope, Food Bank of the Rockies, and teams of parish, school and community donors and volunteers. For four years, two volunteers from St. Louis in Louisville, Debbie Hodge and Felisa Marcia, have coordinated the 96 totes that are distributed at Annunciation every Friday. Each tote contains nine to 10 pounds of nonperishable items such as bread, crackers, cereal, soup and canned fruits, vegetables and meats.

“It’s been a God-send,” Roberts said.

Since that time, several more SUN (Schools in Urban Neighborhoods) schools, as well as parishes, have started the program including: St. Rose of Lima, St. Therese, Presentation of Our Lady, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis de Sales, Holy Trinity, Our Lady of Lourdes, Guardian Angels, Sts. Peter and Paul, Holy Name, St. Cajetan Parish, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, and private dual language Catholic school Escuela de Guadalupe.

“We have a great group of faithful volunteers,” Heule said of the growing team of about 40. “Our volunteers are very organized and diligent.”

Volunteer Joe Gallegos, a member of Knights of Columbus Council 4844 in southwest Denver and parishioner of St. Rose of Lima—along with a team of six Knights from Council 4844—hauls 5,000 pounds of food to five sites every Tuesday. Starting at 9:30 a.m. the team begins a 32-mile round trip first heading to the food bank where their trucks are loaded with enough food to fill totes for 625 children. They then makes their rounds where students meet them at each of the schools to help the men, all in their 70s, unload the food.

“The poor children …” Gallegos said. “There are a lot of people that need help out there and we’re just glad to help. For three years, I’ve had to call for volunteers. I haven’t once had a volunteer say ‘no’ when I called. It just comes from the heart.”

On Wednesdays or Thursdays, students or another team of volunteers from organizations such as Regis University, Holy Family High School, Knights of Columbus or a Rotary Club go to the school to load the food into the totes. Heule recognized these, and all the volunteers and donors that have allowed the program to expand including corporations such as Academy Roofing, JR Butler, Coughlin & Company and Linkmont Technologies; and Food Bank supporters.

“We provide food to 1,240 kids each week,” Heule said, “And we’re adding 320 more next week.”

The Food Bank of the Rockies is grateful for the extensive Catholic presence in the program.

“When everybody pitches in it makes a difference,” Gianotsos said. “We want to make sure there aren’t any hungry kids.”

Totes of Hope in Denver-area Catholic schools

Schools involved in Totes 2011: 1
Schools & parishes involved in Totes 2014: 14
Students receiving totes each week: 1,560
Pounds of food in tote: 9-10
Cost for donor to fill tote: $2
Volunteers: 40

Totes of Hope
What: Donate or volunteer
Call: 303-751-4444

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.