Beating Hunger

Published 11:02 am Tuesday, July 26, 2016

WINDSOR – It’s called the Youth Bertie Incorporated, but it’s a youth initiative better known as ‘The Backpack Club’, and it just celebrated its first birthday.

To help fete the occasion a group of over 125 donors, patrons, and volunteers gathered at the Heritage Center at Hope Plantation to laud their efforts from the past year.

The brainchild of former businessman and current Bertie County Commissioner Ronald ‘Ron’ Wesson and Dr. Karen Ray with St. Thomas Episcopal Church, the initiative, a 501c3 non-profit, has provided weekend take-home meals and snacks for elementary and charter school students.

“Our goal was to just feed about 75-to-100 of the neediest kids,” Wesson said. “We don’t pick them; they’re picked by the counselors and Social Services. We ended up feeding 155 kids.”

The cost, Wesson says, is 180 dollars per student for the entire school year. While some food and nutrition outlets allow discounts, the group purchases all the food from their gathered donations; volunteers – usually 4H Club members and Community Service Students – then pack the meals in plastic bags where the bags are boxed and delivered to the schools for distribution.

A typical food bag contains fresh fruit, non-perishable milk, juice, “heat and serve”, or microwaveable cans of stew and pasta, along with small packs of apple sauce; good for two lunches and two dinners.

“What we’ve learned over the years is that school-age children many times go without a nutritious meal when school is not in session,” Wesson said back in the fall of 2015 when the program was in its infancy. “While that’s basically during the summer months, it also includes weekends when school is in session.”

“Sadly, for a lot of kids from low income households, the meals they eat at school are the only nutrition they receive, and that only comes when school is in session. Our program fills the gap during weekends,” he said.

While in neighboring counties other organizations – and some church ministries – have backpack food initiatives, Wesson believes the uniqueness of the Bertie project is that every penny raised goes into the purchase of food.

“All of our administrative costs are paid by our founders,” he acknowledged. “The put up the mailings, the brochures, anything that we do; none of our money collected goes to administration expenses.”

The banquet speaker was Rev. Richard Joyner of Conetoe Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Edgecombe County, just outside Rocky Mount. Joyner was runner-up “CNN Hero-of-the-Year” in 2015 and a 2014 Purpose Prize winner.

Joyner spoke on how he believes a community can grow its way out of poverty and how proper nutrition leads to longevity. With a lack of grocery stores in their rural part of the county, he and his congregation raised enough to start a small two-acre vegetable farm. That small beginning has now grown to 25 acres and is manned by 64 youths in Joyner’s church that sell produce at farmer’s markets, urban restaurants, and have even traded vegetables for seafood with Outer Banks fishermen.

“He was so inspirational,” Wesson maintained. “He showed the kids how to organize a community into doing something effective.”

The initiative plans to expand for their second year, doing much of their fund-raising during the summer.

“When school is out we’ve got only two months to raise the money for next year,” Wesson stated. “Our goal is to try to feed 175 kids – 20 more than this year because we had a lot of kids we couldn’t get to last year. So we’ve got to raise $32,000 in 60 days.”

Wesson believes the fund-raising goal is do-able because of donations from individuals, businesses, churches, and civic organizations.

“We had 18 churches to do sponsorships and Cherry’s Funeral Home sponsored three kids,” Wesson announced. “The prisoners at Bertie Correctional donated $500, the Episcopal Church raised $1,500, and Perdue Farms in Lewiston cooked and sold their own chicken to their employees and raised $1,800. When people heard we had so many kids, some 30 percent in Bertie County, that are food insecure, they just got behind us to buy what we needed from the Albemarle Food Bank.”

“We want to really thank everyone who helped us last year, including Food Lion, who gave us a big discounted price on our fruit,” Wesson said. “Whether it was people who donated $5 or $1,000, we’re thankful to all the people who helped us and we really want them to know that we need them again this year. We want to do it again, and do it even better.”

If you would like to contribute to the Backpack Initiative, you can send your tax-deductible donations to: Youth Bertie, Inc., P.O. Box 778, Windsor, NC 27983.