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Shaler Backpack Initiative picks up steam

| Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015, 4:09 p.m.
Shaler Area Middle School principal Martin Martynuska makes good on a promise to middle school students and dresses as a turkey Nov. 25. Martynuska promised to don the poultry costume if his students raised more than $1,000 in one day for the Backpack Initiative. Students raised more than $1,200.
Shaler Area Middle School principal Martin Martynuska makes good on a promise to middle school students and dresses as a turkey Nov. 25. Martynuska promised to don the poultry costume if his students raised more than $1,000 in one day for the Backpack Initiative. Students raised more than $1,200.
Three seventh-grade teams at Shaler Area Middle School had a food drive in November and collected more than 11,000 ounces of food for the Shaler Area Backpack Initiative and local food banks.
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Three seventh-grade teams at Shaler Area Middle School had a food drive in November and collected more than 11,000 ounces of food for the Shaler Area Backpack Initiative and local food banks.

A year after it started, the Shaler Area Backpack Initiative has grown by leaps and bounds.

The program, started in October 2014, has grown from 40 students in its first few months to serving more than 260 students district-wide this school year.

“Everyone is very supportive,” said co-founder Shelley West. “The community has rallied around this.”

Shaler Area Backpack Initiative was founded by seventh-grade teachers West and Melissa Matlock. The pair noticed students experiencing financial hardships and was concerned that the kids may not be getting enough food over the weekend while not in school.

Through the program, students receive a small bag of easy-to-make breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack items tucked into their backpacks at the end of the school day Friday to ensure they stay well-fed over the weekend. It is open to any student, not just those demonstrating financial need.

“All of the food we send home is something that doesn't require extra ingredients to prepare, so kids can just throw it together themselves,” West said.

The backpack initiative started in the middle school and opened up to all school buildings in the district by December 2014, at which time they grew to serve around 200 students throughout the district, Matlock said.

Because they were able to send out applications at the beginning of this school year, enrollment has grown even more.

“This year we started in September and we have been around 260 since we started,” Matlock said.

The school and community have stepped up to show their support for the program, which relies on food and monetary donations to stay running. Matlock said they were concerned at the end of the 2014-15 school year about what would happen to students during the summer, but the district came forward and started a summer feeding program through the National School Lunch program.

Various schools and groups have gathered food and raised money for the backpack initiative.

Most recently, students at the middle school raised $1,200 in one day for the program. In return for their generosity, middle school Principal Martin Martynuska dressed up in a turkey costume for an entire day, Matlock said.

When they ran low on supplies a few weeks ago, West said they asked for help and received an overwhelming response.

“We had parents of primary school kids do competitions at their workplace and brought in cartloads of food,” she said.

Matlock and West hope to continue their simple mission of helping students in Shaler Area stay well-fed. They are always accepting donations and never turn anything away.

“It's very important to us that this is able to work,” West said. “All the help we've received so far really says a lot about our district.”

For more information on how to apply, donate or help, visit www.sasd.k12.pa.us/BackpackInitiative.aspx; or www.facebook.com/SAbackpack/

Rachel Farkas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6364or rfarkas@tribweb.com.

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