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Backpack Initiative doesn't take a summer vacation

| Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, 1:57 p.m.

On summer afternoons, the basement at Christ Lutheran Church in Ross Township is abuzz with the sound of chatty children and filled with the smell of pizza.

The informal pizza parties, hosted by North Hills faculty and several volunteers from the community, are an extension of the North Hills School District's Backpack Initiative, which helps feed district students who don't have enough food at home.

“We worried that kids who were on the free or reduced lunches during the school year would have nothing in the summer,” said counselor Kathy Helfrich, who founded the program with gifted-education teacher Holly Michael when they both worked at North Hills Middle School. The pair has since moved to the high school.

During the school year, the Backpack Initiative sends weekend care packages of healthy snacks and easily prepared meals home with students from families who sign up, and Helfrich and Michael worried about what the students would eat over the summer.

With money left over from program donations after the first year in 2012, they began offering free summer lunches twice a week to supplement the school-year program.

Michael said food is available at 1 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays throughout the summer at the Christ Lutheran Church, 157 Peony Ave., Ross Township, and teachers volunteer to help each week.

“We really pride ourselves of the family feel at North Hills,” Michael said. “I think it's important that we foster that sense of community.”

Helfrich said the program, now in its third year, usually gets about 20 students who come for a lunch of pizza, as well as fruit and vegetables, and students also are sent home with bags of food and leftover pizza.

She said seeing students and meeting families also helps them develop relationships.

“We want to build relationships with these families so when they get into trouble, they can come to us,” Helfrich said.

The fruits, vegetables, juice and milk are paid for by funds raised by the Backpack Initiative, and Thrivent Financial, a Lutheran financial-service organization, pays for the pizza, which costs about $1,200 each summer.

“I was a teacher for 30 years, and I know how important it is not to have hungry kids in front of you,” said Pam Block of McCandless, who submitted a proposal to Thrivent after reading about the North Hills Backpack Initiative.

Helfrich said the pizza is ordered from Adrian's Pizza in Ross Township, which is owned by a North Hills graduate, because organizers want to keep the money in the district.

“As far as we're concerned, that's North Hills money. We want to keep it in the community,” Helfrich said.

Michael said that there aren't many feeding programs for needy children in the North Hills, and child-care costs can add to an already financially strapped family's burden, so the program is equally, if not more, important in the summer.

The program recently was moved from Ridgewood Church in West View to Christ Lutheran Church in an effort to attract more students, many of whom are across the street for summer reading programs at Highcliff Elementary.

During the last school year, the program, run solely on donations, benefited 168 students in the district, which had about 1,300 students enrolled in the free or reduced-price lunch program, according to district officials. There are no requirements to participate in the Backpack Initiative.

Mary Lee Wetmore, a Response to Intervention facilitator at Highcliff Elementary, volunteers once or twice a summer to help serve pizza.

“I think it's first of all important to make sure the kids are getting a healthy meal,” said Wetmore, 55, of Plum. “But I also come because I like seeing the kids. I miss them.”

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

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