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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.”

BY THE NUMBERS
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
Email: Tom@denargo.com
Online: www.foodbankrockies.org

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