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North Hills backpack program provides food to children in need

| Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

When a North Hills School District counselor and teacher realized some students didn't have anything to eat over the weekend, they established a program called Backpack Initiative in 2012.

With a $200 donation, guidance counselor Kathy Helfrich and gifted-education teacher Holly Michael packed 20 bags of food for students at what then was North Hills Junior High School who otherwise might not have anything else to eat.

“We kind of went on faith when we first started,” Helfrich, said.

Two years later, the program they created serves 168 students across the district and sends more than 500 pounds of food home every Friday afternoon to keep students fed.

The North Hills Backpack Initiative collects food and monetary donations from organizations and individuals and sends bags of food home to help children in need at the end of each week.

School counselors discretely place bags of child-friendly single-serving snacks and easily prepared meals in students' backpacks while they're in class.

Helfrich, 57, of Franklin Park, and Michael, 46, of Beaver County, said there are no requirements to enroll in the program and that most of the students involved are in the elementary schools.

The program started when a junior high student was sent to Helfrich because of behavioral issues on a Monday morning. She asked him what the problem was, and he told her he hadn't eaten all weekend.

According to Lisa Scales, CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, school lunches and breakfasts sometimes are the only meals children from struggling families receive, which leaves them without food on the weekends.

Scales said hunger in suburban communities is on the rise, and programs such as the Backpack Initiative exist in schools throughout the Pittsburgh Area.

“Hunger affects people in every community in our region,” Scales said. “One of the biggest areas of increased need is in the suburbs.”

Because hunger physiologically hinders learning, Scales said, teachers and coaches often become aware of the problem and are the ones who take action.

“I live in a middle-class community. I never even thought of that being an issue,” said Helfrich, who now works at North Hills High School. “We couldn't have this knowledge and not do anything.”

Amanda Hartle, spokeswoman for the district, said 995 students in the district, which is more than 20 percent of the student body, are enrolled in the free-lunch and free-breakfast program. An additional 184 students qualify for reduced prices and pay 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch.

“It was shocking to me how many families are struggling,” said Michael, who teaches at the high school.

The Norwin School District has two similar programs that send needy elementary students home with food for the weekend.

The Kitty Sack Project, run by the Norwin Lions Club, and Norwin's Backpack Project, run by the Norwin Rotary Club, serve the district's four elementary schools.

North Huntington resident Dina Denning started the two programs after she learned of hungry families in the area and was “absolutely floored.”

North Hills collects donations throughout the year.

Food is collected at school events; donation boxes are located at schools; and proceeds from fundraising efforts by teachers, such as blue-jean days, go toward the Backpack Initiative.

Donations also can be placed in a box at the district's administrative office at 135 Sixth Ave. in Ross Township.

Michael said the program is run entirely on donations and does not cost the school district any money.

Last year, the high school baseball team held a food drive and filled the athletic office with donations, and other student groups collect for the project, as well.

“We have pretty diverse kind of support,” Helfrich said.

When classes are not in session, the program also serves lunches twice a week during the summer at Ridgewood Church in West View.

Kelsey Shea is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or

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