Saugerties High School Key Club brings more food to more kids through Backpack Program

The Saugerties High School Key Club started the second year of its successful Backpack Program by expanding it, serving more students in need than before.

The program, which sends elementary school students home with meals on weekends, was founded two years ago and has grown to serve 85 students at Lawrence M. Cahill and Mount Marion elementary schools.

“We put the backpack part together in March of 2015, but we raised money for a year before that,” said Missy Greco, a physical education teacher at Saugerties High and the Key Club’s faculty advisor. “We’ve been raising money to try to sustain it; Sawyer Savings Bank gave us a good-sized donation to kind of start the program off.”

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In fact, the program sustains itself on donations, both public and private, as well as through a series of fundraising initiatives.

“We keep doing fundraisers,” said Greco. “We’ve done golf tournaments, we’ve had ice-skating at the Kiwanis [Ice Arena], we’ve raised money at the [Hudson Valley] Garlic Festival. Any chance we can get to raise money, we do it. Teachers and the staff of the school district are very generous with donations. Businesses have given us donations. Just random people who see it in the paper. Families have sent either food or a monetary donation. It’s just kind of word of mouth.”

The program is overseen by the Kiwanis Club, Greco said, and they’re reaching out to state-level organizations to seek help. Greco is also meeting with Ulster County Legislator Mary Wawro soon. Greco said every little bit can be a big help.

“It’s hard to keep it up,” she said. “Probably when you break it down it’s about $200 a week.”

The Key Club’s Backpack Program sends kids home with food on weekends during the school year, covering more during vacations or other days off. With the area in the cold grip of winter, they also added warm hats, gloves and scarves to backpacks.

“We do a breakfast and a lunch for Saturday and Sunday,” Greco said. “Something simple that kids can heat up, a Cup-o-Soup, ramen noodles, Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Spaghetti-O’s. It’s not great food, but it’s food. Packs of oatmeal. Boxes of cereal. It’s hard to buy stuff like that because it’s high in sodium, but then you think, it’s either that or nothing.”

Greco added that she hopes to be able to offer healthier options in the future. “We haven’t really gone with fresh fruit yet because it’s a storage issue, but we have talked about it,” she said. “We do juice boxes. Minimal, but enough where some kids, this is their only food here.”

For the students in Key Club, helping with the Backpack Program has become a matter of routine.

“My Key Club kids, after our meetings on Wednesdays, we fill the backpacks and then one of our transportation guys delivers them to the schools on Thursday,” Greco said. “Nurses are involved, teachers are involved, and the kids get the backpacks and bring them home on Friday, and then they bring them back Monday and we do it again. I probably have about five-to-seven Key Club kids filling backpacks every Wednesday, and it’s like a little assembly line.”

And while elementary students are getting help with hunger, the program has also been rewarding for Key Club students as well.

“The kids that come and fill the backpacks, they really see that we take so much for granted,” Greco said. “I’ve overheard kids say, ‘Wow, I just take for granted that I have food at my house.’ I think that’s what they get out of it, an appreciation of what they have. They get a different perspective and they get a sense of what it’s like to give. They’re giving of their time because they’re not getting paid, they volunteer. And so many kids come back and say, ‘That was so much fun.’”

Abigail Smedek, an SHS senior and Key club president, said she’s found the experience very fulfilling.

“I guess just the community service and how effective it is in the community,” she said. “It’s a great feeling knowing I can help out and make a difference in our community. And I know the schools are really grateful we’re helping out.”

According to Greco, the program was brought to the district by Business Administrator Lissa Jilek.

“She worked at Cairo-Durham [Central School District], and they had a backpack program,” Greco said. “She really developed it, and she and I went to Cahill and Mount Marion where we thought it would be most needed and went to faculty meetings and asked teachers to recommend kids. They saw first-hand kids coming in and they knew who was in need. We sent permission slips home to the parents, and the parents are very appreciative.”

Initially, the hope was to help even more kids. “We were going to go on free and reduced lunch, but there’s 500 kids on free and reduced lunch in our district,” Greco said. “It’s really good to be able to provide for the kids, but it’s also really heartbreaking that there’s such a need.”

Smedek said she hopes to see the program grow in the future after she goes off to college.

“I guess the next step would be expanding it into the junior high school and the high school,” she said. “At the moment we’re really focusing on the needs of the elementary kids.”

People’s Place, a Kingston-based thrift store and food pantry, held its first ever Bag Holiday Hunger initiative last month, a program intended to give the families of public school students in Ulster County who participate in free and reduced meal programs the means to help feed their children during the winter break. But the Key Club Backpack Program also continued during the holiday, and was especially helpful for families who couldn’t make it to Kingston for Bag Holiday Hunger.

For more information on how to help the Key Club with donations or in other ways, contact Greco at: mgreco@saugerties.k12.ny.us

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