Every Friday of the school year without fail, GMU librarian Raquel Norton slips out of the rooms with the stacks of books and walks the hallways of the school, carrying plastic bags filled with canned goods, boxes of pasta and rice, juice boxes, apples, loaves of bread, peanut butter and jelly, and toiletries and other useful things. She pauses to transfer items to a backpack in one empty classroom, then moves on.
She has memorized all the class schedules, so she only visits empty classrooms. And the students who take home all that food spend the weekend with full bellies.
The Backpack Program at GMU gives real help to students in need. GMU Principal Heather Wilcox explains that while they may all qualify for free breakfast and lunch at school, the students in the Backpack Program have a real need for food during the weekends. So the Friday deliveries include three entrees, breakfast items and other snacks.
The program that began with a donation during the holidays in 2017 has grown in its first year to benefit 20 families in the Gilbertsville-Mount Upton Central School District.
Norton says every GMU employee gets a checklist for kids and can nominate anyone they feel meets the criteria for aid. She keeps contacts with the students to a minimum and always tries to preserve confidentiality. “I know how I would feel,” she explains.
The first delivery happened in January 2018 and was made possible by a $200 donation from the Oneonta Daily Star, Norton says. “We’d been talking about it for two years,” she recalls, “and finally, we put together a program similar to one the United Methodist Church in Morris was doing.”
Most of the food comes from the Northeast Regional Food Bank in Latham, NY, near Albany. Each week, Norton picks up the food from a truck at the mall in Oneonta. As for the funds to buy the food, they come from people and companies near and far.
The New York State Grange Association recently donated $50 and a pile of food that filled Norton’s Jeep.
The Unitarian Universalist Society of Oneonta recently made a gift of $1,600 that will translate into two gallons of milk a month for each student in the program, who can use coupons to buy the milk at the Blue Ox convenience store in Mount Upton.
Other donors include the women’s group at the Presbyterian Church in Gilbertsville, the Mount Upton Fire Department and its Women’s Auxiliary and the Talbot Insurance Agency in Oneonta.
And there are donations from community residents, GMU retired teachers and current staff. Each month, staff members can choose to wear blue jeans on a Friday or two in return for donating $5 to the program.
Norton is always looking for help to buy the food and supplies that pile up each week in a small conference room in the library, where she works between her regular duties to sort the items for her Friday deliveries.
Norton credits all those who help the program, but administrators give her a lot of the credit. “She’s not the teacher of the year (for 2018) for no reason,” says GMU District Superintendent Annette Hammond. “Raquel also organizes our Mentoring Program. She has always been community-centered, and we’re fortunate to have her.
“She was also BOCES Librarian of the year this past year.”
Hammond agreed to the ‘jeans day’ idea that came from the GMU Teachers’ Association as a way to help fund the program.
Norton notes that it costs $183 to sponsor one of the program’s 25 children for an entire school year. “Once people found out how affordable it was, I had several people step forward to sponsor an entire year for a student,” she says. “But we’re always looking for more.”??The Backpack Program recently bought Thanksgiving dinners for the 20 families with students in the program, and the Sidney Elks’ Club #2175 dropped off shoes and boots, clothing and toiletries for the students.
Norton knows the program helps students, and she hopes to see it grow. “All we need is for more people to give,” she says.
The program raffled off a turkey, ham, and homemade quilt as fund-raisers this fall.
Anyone interested in donating to the Backpack Program can write a check to the school district, listing the Backpack Program on the ‘note’ line. They can also make checks out to the food bank in Latham.
Norton encourages anyone who wants to know more about the program to contact her at 607.783.2207 or firstname.lastname@example.org.