RIVERVIEW – When Hillsborough Community College SouthShore student Saika Viard was a child, she often didn’t have anything nourishing to eat on weekends. Her mother – a single parent – worked full time and there wasn’t much time for shopping or cooking.
So when Viard was approached by Peggy Gleason, assistant to the dean of student services, and told that the South Shore United Methodist Church in Riverview needed volunteers for Backpacks on a Mission, she jumped at the chance to help. The 19-year-old Student Government Association president urged fellow members of SGA, Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society and the Collegiate 100 to become involved in a special Martin Luther King Day of Service project.
Backpacks on a Mission provides 110 children in need at Corr, Summerfield and Summerfield Crossings elementary schools with backpacks of healthy foods and snacks to take home over the weekend.
“When I was growing up I was in the same situation,” Viard said. “During the week I was part of my school’s free or reduced breakfast and lunch program but on the weekends there were times I didn’t have much to eat at home. There wasn’t a program like this back then.”
Thanks to a portion of a federal grant secured by State Rep. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, HCC SouthShore was able to recently donate $4,500 to South Shore United Methodist to replenish its food pantry, the contents of which are specifically earmarked for Backpacks on a Mission. Part of the grant’s objectives was to provide junior college students with opportunities to serve their communities.
On Jan. 20 – Martin Luther King Day – 14 students and five staff members from HCC’s Ruskin campus joined church volunteers to load six pallets of food purchased at Sam’s Club into vehicles, and then head to the church to unload and carry them into the empty pantry.
“We are so grateful to have received this MLK service Award and to the HCC SouthShore students and staff,” said Kathy McGartland, Backpacks on a Mission program coordinator. “We all worked together as a team. It was an awesome day.”
Viard said it was the students who felt grateful.
“I was so glad we were able to participate,” she said. “To know children will be helped in this way really touched my heart.”
Backpacks on a Mission started two years ago and is an ongoing project for the church. Teams of volunteers work early in the week purchasing, setting up foods by school and by student, tagging backpacks with each child’s first initial and last name, and color coding them for allergies. On Wednesdays another team packs the backpacks, on Thursdays another takes them to the schools. One woman does nothing but buy fresh fruits every other week. Finally, on Fridays, the backpacks are distributed by school counselors to the kids.
At Corr Elementary about 40 of the school’s more than 700 children are part of the program.
“We are just so grateful,” said Principal Terri Faerber. “This is a Title 1 school so we have many children who can benefit from this program.”
Of course that depends on funding sources.
Past donors have included the Greater Sun City Center Community Foundation, now known as the South Shore Council; Interfaith Council of Sun City Center; Riverview Woman’s Club; 100 Women Who Care and Crossfit Apogee.