‘Gifts’ fight hunger
Anne E. McGregor, left, and Javonna Strafuss, fill plastic bags with food Thursday afternoon at Branson Elementary West School. Each week, a handful of volunteers help fill more than 100 bags of food as part of Gift of Hope Backpack Club. Every Friday, the bags are distributed to children who might not otherwise have something to eat until they return to school the following Monday.

    Every Friday, several hundred Taney County children take home something special from school in their backpacks.

     It isn’t a fancy art project, a perfect paper or even something from the classroom treasure chest. They take home a backpack full of food, something that might be scarce for some students until they return to school the following Monday.

    The program that provides the backpacks full of food each week is known as the Gift of Hope’s Backpack Club.   

    “The real intention is to feed a hungry child,” said Meghan Connell, executive director of Gift of Hope.

    The program began in 2007. Teachers at Forsyth were taking money out of their own pockets and purchasing food for some students they realized were coming to school hungry.

    “But, the numbers grew so large,” Connell said.

    The teachers then called Tony Collier, founder of Gift of Hope, asking for help.

    Since that time, the program has grown, taking the Backpack Club into Branson, Taneyville, Kirbyville, Bradleyville and Trinity Christian Academy schools and serving approximately 350 students weekly.

    The number of students receiving the food fluctuates all the time.

    Connell said that the children who receive the assistance are identified by teachers, counselors, bus drivers and lunch room attendants with the goal of feeding the children who might not otherwise have much to eat outside of school.

    Each week, the children receive  packs filled with crackers, juice box, two microwavable meal cups, shelf stable milk, fruit cup and granola bar.

    “All of these items may be eaten hot or cold,” Connell said.

    “They are all easily opened by a 5-year-old and they do not require refrigeration.”

    Those type of convenience food items come with a price, though. It cost approximately $4 to fill each pack every week.

    Connell said they know how important the program is, though.

    “Right now, there are no government-funded programs like this,” she said.

    The need is also growing. Connell said Gift of Hope plans to take its program next year into the Hollister district where currently the Junior Auxiliary of Taney County provides a similar program to about 150 Hollister elementary students.

    However, Connell said the Junior Auxiliary's program will end at the end of this school year and Gift of Hope is looking to take on those children, as well.

    She said she has also been asked about bring the program to Mark Twain school.

    Currently the program is funded in several different ways. Employees of the National Enzyme Co. donate regularly through automatic payroll deductions and then Collier matches those donations. Connell said fundraisers also help the program keep going.   

    For people looking to help, Connell said there are many opportunities.

    “No. 1, people can assist with funding of the program,” she said.

    Right now, the organization can sustain the 350 children it feeds weekly, but as they look to take on another 200 next year, Connell said it will be challenging.

    For those who might not be able to donate money, Connell said they could host food drives such as a chewy granola bar drive where people only donate that food item which in turn can go directly to children in need.

    Other opportunities are available for those who would like to volunteer and Connell said if companies want to get involved, a great way would be to set up a way for employers to make automatic payroll deductions.

    “It is remarkable how that adds up,” she said.

    For more information about Gift of Hope or the backpack program call 417-546-8062 or visit giftofhopeinc.org.

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