“Backpacks on a Mission” is a year-round project, but Jan. 16 it was all about a $5,000 grant from the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service.
Kathy McGartland has been point person at the South Shore United Methodist Church for the annual project since 2011. For almost 20 years, she has helped South County’s needy through her jobs at Good Samaritan Mission and Mission Smiles free dental services, as well as volunteering at the church.
“Our former pastor, John Legg, came to me in 2011 with a Power Point presentation and said, ‘We’re going to do this here,’ and I’ve been writing the grants and organizing the Backpack project ever since,” McGartland said. “He left, but our new pastor, Cory Britt, has seen that it continues.”
During the year, grants are received for “Backpacks on a Mission” from several sources, including the Interfaith Council and Kiwanis Club in Sun City Center, as well as the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, the Ruskin Woman’s Club and the group, 100 Women Who Care.
“To run the program year-round costs about $25,000,” McGartland said. “But this $5,000 from the Martin Luther King Jr. grant enabled us to fill the pantries with the help of church volunteers and kids from the student government at HCC.”
Hillsborough Community College SouthShore Student Activities Coordinator Sara Crooke said student government picks what community projects they assist.
On Jan. 16, student government representatives Michelle Colson, president, and Tatianna Rivers, vice president, gathered their crew at Sam’s Club on Big Bend Road, where they met with McGartland’s volunteers. Together they purchased, hauled and packed tons of food into the church’s pantries and storerooms.
At one point, there was so much food being loaded into one pantry that (adult) volunteer Michael Barlow was caught giving a thumbs-up to those bringing it in.
Even 2-year-old Matthew Carter and several other youngsters who could barely climb into the backs of the cars, pickups and station wagons, helped unload before being taken to the nursery, where children of the volunteers were being watched.
“That’s the most important job,” said one man carrying a heavy load as he rushed quickly into the building. “We know the kids are safe while we work.”
At the beginning of each year, children who say they don’t get enough food at home are identified by teachers and counselors at three area elementary schools.
The project started with serving 20 children and has grown to sending home 121 full backpacks every week of the school year.
McGartland wrote a grant to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service project and received the $5,000 used Saturday, Jan. 16.
“We had more than a dozen HCC SouthShore student government volunteers working,” said Ashley Jeffery, community relations manager at HCC SouthShore.
Jeffery and McGartland explained that the students identified by Summerfield Crossings, Summerfield, and Corr elementary schools get special backpacks with their names in them at the beginning of the program each year and each week thereafter turn them in on Mondays, and get them back full on Fridays to take home over the weekend.
“It’s great that some have formed what they call ‘Backpack Clubs’ so that they don’t feel singled out as needy but ‘special,’ as in part of a select group,” McGartland explained.
The backpacks contain snacks and foods that are easy to keep and won’t go bad, like soups, ravioli, juice and fruit.
Volunteers are working on the project every day of the week. Some collect the backpacks Mondays when they are brought in by the students; others set them up Tuesdays by name; Wednesday nights a team from the church packs the food; and Thursday morning another team takes them to the schools so counselors can distribute them on Fridays.
“It’s very rewarding,” McGartland said.
To find out more about the project or to help, donate or volunteer, visit www.southshoreumc.com/backpacks-on-a-mission.