Angels With Back Packs

As the North Country transitions from summer on the lake to back to school, the Joint Council for Economic Opportunity and its Community Action Angels are putting their efforts to work for children across our area.

“Good nutrition is just as important to a child as a quality education—maybe even more so,” said Tom Vilsak, former Secretary of Agriculture under President Barak Obama. “We can’t expect kids to learn, excel and achieve if they aren’t properly nourished from day one.”

To address the problem of childhood hunger in the North Country the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, in collaboration with the Plattsburgh JCEO, works to helps elementary aged children dealing with food insecurity. The expected long-term outcomes for this project are improved physical, cognitive and social growth. Plattsburgh City School District is an active participant in the Community Eligibility Program which allows students in its district to receive free breakfast and lunch at school each day. But what about when the students aren’t at school?

The Regional Food Bank delivers to JCEO once a month. The food it provides is part of the 35 million pounds of food it distributes to 23 New York counties serving one thousand agencies annually. The food is sorted into categories at JCEO and then bagged into appropriate quantities for the children to take home from school in their backpack each weekend. Once bagged the backpacks are stowed in large plastic tote bins for each school. A volunteer delivers the bins, picks them up after the backpacks are distributed and returns them to JCEO to be filled, every week for the thirty weeks the program is up and running during the school year. Children who are enrolled in the backpack program are referred by their teachers or counselors. There is no income requirement. Decisions are based on perceived need.

Along with the monthly delivery of food, the Regional Food Bank sends a recommended menu plan. Based on community feedback, changes can be made to the offerings. A recent change eliminated fruit juice, which added weight to the backpacks and contained a significant amount of sugar. Instead, the backpacks now contain egg cards in addition to the milk cards already provided, that can be redeemed at Stewart’s Shops.

Together JCEO and the Community Action Angels distribute the equivalent of 30,000 pounds of food through the Backpack Program to 100 elementary aged students at Bailey Avenue, Oak Street and Momot Elementary Schools in Plattsburgh each school year. Heading up that effort is JCEO’s Megan Tedford who has been with the agency since 2015 as a Development Specialist and was recently named Development Director. Tedford is proud to work for a human services community agency. “We have a tangible impact on the community and it’s really rewarding,” she emphasized. While Tedford was clear about what she enjoys about her position, she also expressed appreciation for the work of the Community Action Angels and the local volunteer groups (particularly BHSN, Upstone Materials, Old Navy, Kiwanis Breakfast Club, CSEA Local 884, and Glens Falls National Bank) who do the lion’s share of the volunteer work when it comes to implementing the program. “They are an incredible network of people. We couldn’t do what we do without them,“ Tedford stressed.

Asked how the Backpack Program is financed, Tedford explained it is entirely covered by community donations. A donation of $183 feeds one child for the entire school year. The Community Action Angels work to raise community awareness and money through a variety of fundraisers.

Playing a critical role in alleviating childhood hunger isn’t the only project of the Community Action Angels. The group has formed a relationship with HALO Innovations Inc. to promote a Safe Sleep Project. The Angels deliver a HALO SleepSack Swaddle for each infant born at University of Vermont Health Care Network- Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital at no cost to families. The swaddles are used over the baby’s regular pajamas in place of loose blankets. HALO Swaddles are designed to ensure a clear airway and to keep babies in place while they sleep. Every year the Community Action Angels provide close to one thousand swaddles and safe sleep education materials to new families in the North Country.

Recently, the Angels partnered with the Kiwanis Breakfast Club to create a program called Fostering Komfort. The crippling heroin epidemic has wreaked havoc on families in our area, forcing children into foster care who might not have time to gather their things. Sadly, some don’t even have things to gather. The program is designed to provide a back- pack containing basic hygiene items for a child and a comfort item. These backpacks are age and gender specific and are distributed by the Department of Social Services. The project started in July of 2016 and since then over 100 backpacks have been assembled and distributed. This is another program that is sustained with community donations.

The Community Action Angels is an incredible group of dedicated volunteers without whom these projects could not be offered. While it can be overwhelming to think of the level of need in our community, knowing there are people like JCEO’s Megan Tedford and the Community Action Angels gives us all a sense of hope.