How can kids concentrate on their studies and succeed if they don’t have enough to eat?
That’s the issue Homeless Backpacks set out to address when they started their nonprofit back in 2006.
The organization got started when Kelly Wilson and some classmates from a course she was taking decided to pack some backpacks with supplies for people living on the streets in Thurston County. When Kelly went to an encampment to distribute them, a reporter from the Olympian showed up. (Her police escort had tipped them off.) The story ended up on the front page of the paper. That was the start of a journey that led the loose-knit group to a deeper understanding of the homeless population in our area.
As she got more involved, Kelly learned that homelessness was not limited to visibly unsheltered people on downtown sidewalk or at freeway exits. There were 600 homeless children in Thurston County at the time. The average age of a homeless person was eight years old.
“That’s what knocked my socks off,” she says.
The group eventually collaborated with the Thurston County Food Bank to fill a gap in services that both groups wanted to address: providing homeless students with food over the weekend. They piloted the program in 2005. The following year, Homeless Backpacks became a nonprofit organization.
Today, Homeless Backpacks provides middle and high school students in Olympia, Lacey, and Tumwater and all schools in Tenino, Rochester, Rainier, and Yelm with bags of food to take home. The need is even bigger than it was when they started. There are currently more than 600 homeless students in the North Thurston School District alone.
Every week, the organization gives away between 500 and 700 bags filled with food to get students in Thurston County through the weekend. They package them up in a space donated by, and located at, Columbia Bank in Lacey.
The idea behind the program is to give away food in nondescript backpacks, so students won’t feel ashamed carrying them home. Bags are filled with shelf-stable foods. They usually contain macaroni and cheese, tuna, ramen noodles, ravioli, chili, oatmeal, granola bars, juice boxes, chocolate milk, and snacks. They still use the list of kid friendly foods developed by the food bank that they started with back when the program began.
Their mission resonates with us at Capital Heating and Cooling. Homelessness and food insecurity are distressing issues in our community and around the country, especially for kids and youth. By purchasing and delivering food to Homeless Backpacks each week, we give students much-needed calories to help them stay in school and give them a chance to graduate and succeed. We also support an organization that’s making a measurable difference.
Time has gone by quickly! We’ve been supporting Homeless Backpacks since 2017, restocking their shelves with 20-40 cases of chocolate milk every week. And once a year, our staff helps out for an evening, bagging up food and drinks for students to take home.
We’re proud to be part of a program that helps students directly, so they can eat when they’re not at school. And we’re so grateful to Kelly and all the volunteers who make this possible for local students throughout the school year.
If you’d like help them out by filling bags or with a donation, contact Homeless Backpacks through their website.