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Converted from paper version of the Broad Ripple Gazette (v08n24)
Blessings in a Backpack at School 55 - by Mario Morone
by Mario Morone
posted: Dec. 02, 2011

Jennifer Bartenbach and IPS #55 principal Stephanie West combine their financial and administrative skills helping kids access better nutrition with Blessings in a Backpack.

IMA CFO Jennifer Bartenbach helps organize Blessings in a Backpack at IPS #55.
IMA CFO Jennifer Bartenbach helps organize Blessings in a Backpack at IPS #55.
image courtesy of Mario Morone
Quan


"I think food is something that most of us take for granted. We go to the store, buy a cart full of groceries, spend $100 and think nothing of it. Half the time we end up throwing a portion of it away. We stop on the way home from work and pick up something convenient, give our kids choices at dinner and send our kids to school with a full stomach each morning. Our kids have a snack cabinet full of healthy and unhealthy choices that they can freely pick from when they're hungry. This, however, is not the case for many kids in our city, state and country. We all are aware of those children that suffer in other countries, but we rarely talk about those who live right down the street from us," Ms. Bartenbach explained. As the Indianapolis Museum of Art's chief financial officer, she budgets funds for food purchases for the program.
Her decision to help was inspired early in life. "I grew up in a family where giving back came naturally. My dad participated in Big Brothers Big Sisters, my mom donated her time freely and often, my dad took in any kid that was struggling. Those are things that have stayed present in my mind as I've become an adult. We (my husband, Chris and I), personally, have spent a lot of time trying to figure how best to give back. We are clearly blessed and have so many things to be thankful for and so many things that we take for granted. It's easy to take the approach of 'oh I'm just one person, what can I really do?'" she said.
They discovered Blessings in a Backpack, a Louisville, Kentucky-based 501 C (3) non-profit organization that facilitates agreements with corporate partners like grocery store chain Meijer. According to www.blessingsinabackpack.org, over 55,000 children in 318 schools in 37 states and three countries (Canada, Columbia and Haiti) benefit from the program.
Stan Curtis founded Blessings in a Backpack with a pilot program in 2005 at two Louisville schools. He currently develops and manages all new and existing school programs.
The Bartenbachs found a local school that could benefit from the non-profit's mission.
"After a lot of time and a lot of research, we chose to adopt an IPS school for the Blessings in a Backpack program. Every school in the Indianapolis Public School system qualifies for the Federal free breakfast and lunch program and a high percentage of children qualify to participate in this program. This means that for many young students, the only meals they receive are breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday. They come to school hungry each morning and starving after a long weekend of few, if any meals. The Blessings in a Backpack program sends a backpack of food home each weekend of the school year with these students. In those schools that have been fortunate enough to participate in this program, the results have been outstanding: Test scores go up and problems go down when children come to school fed and ready to learn each Monday morning. It costs just $80 to feed a child for an entire school year - that is less than most of us spend on one week's worth of groceries," Ms. Bartenbach noted.

Blessings in a Backpack at School 55 - by Mario Morone
image courtesy of Mario Morone
Quan


"We chose a middle school in Broad Ripple with hopes of raising enough money to feed 175 kids this school year. In this school, 100 percent children qualify for the federal meal program - 100 percent! Our fundraising efforts have been slower than we expected, but we know we are doing the right thing. Even if we can impact the lives of 50 kids, it will be more than worth it," she said.
"We are currently serving 40 kids each week within this program. (Approximately 186 students are enrolled at the school.) We chose IPS #55 because it was close to the community we both work and live in. We fill the backpacks each Friday and they are sent home at the end of the school day on Friday afternoons. I pick up a two-week supply of food and deliver it to the school. (Meijer provides a discount.) We are continuing to fundraise to add more children to the program in January when the second semester begins," Ms. Bartenbach mentioned.
The non-perishable food items include oatmeal, granola bars, fruits bars, applesauce, macaroni and cheese and spaghetti. Kids are chosen based on need. Students have their names written on their backpacks that are prepared by volunteers like social worker Lourdes Holloway.
A community effort has rallied around the cause. The Broad Ripple Kiwanis Club provided an initial $160 to start the program and later gave an additional $880. Kiwanis Cares has also raised money, in addition to Northminster Presbyterian Church and Broad Ripple Optimists Club. BW3 restaurant hosted a fundraising event during August as well. Their goal is to find the final funding for the project for the current school year.
"Only one other school (IPS #61) in the district that is fully funded by Old National Bank is participating in the program. When I heard about the story last year, it was a real answer to a prayer that would impact children to receive a healthy variety of food. It's been cool to see how things have progressed and how people have jumped on board," explained Ms. West.
"I teach kids and the school staff, that as little as one has, they can always give a little. I want them to feel they can always be of service to others," she emphasized. Ms. West is currently in her fifth year as IPS #55 principal. Her education career includes teaching for 12 years, 10 years at IPS #69 and two years at IPS #111. She was also an assistant principal for a year at IPS #49. It has been a rewarding experience for all involved.
Individuals and companies can help Blessings in a Backpack locally by calling Ms. Bartenbach at (317) 250-2879. The link, www.blessingsinabackpack.org/gettingstarted, provides regional program information on adopting a school, donating and fundraising.
Jennifer Bartenbach and Stephanie West are teaching lessons that extend beyond school classrooms. They are also inspiring non-profits and citizens alike in making a lasting impact in the communities they call home.


mario@broadripplegazette.com
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