What started in 2010 with a handful of church parishioners making weekend meals for a little more than 20 area school children a week has since grown to the point that they've recently struck up a partnership with the Tri-Area Food Bank.
Mike Boock, manager of the Tri-Area Food Bank, said his organization is now providing space to the Chimacum Backpacks For Kids 501(c)(3) program.
“This was fully supported by the Jefferson County Food Bank Board,” Boock said. “We also hope to support them by lending our expertise on the other food charities we deal with all the time. We also have a large group of volunteers who can help assemble their meals. However we can help, we'll try.”
Peggy Welker, spokeswoman for Chimacum Backpacks For Kids, noted that the Food Bank's donation of space for the Backpacks For Kids' assembly of meals allows the Backpacks group to save the money they were spending on rent for other resources.
Boock noted that the children who benefit from their weekend meals tend to be members of the same families who are already clients of the Jefferson County Food Banks, so the two volunteer groups' missions dovetail with one another.
“Last month, in five weeks, the Tri-Area Food Bank served a record 1,300 families,” Boock said. “Some of those are duplicated, because the numbers are recorded weekly, but in one Wednesday, the Food Bank served more than 550 people, which amounted to 200 families. The Backpacks program is just one more way we can get help to the kids in those families.”
Marilyn Chadwell, head of the board for the Chimacum Backpacks For Kids, explained the name of the group is a bit of a misnomer, as it started distributing meals in backpacks, and then in handmade fabric bags, but those bags were rarely returned.
“We get it; these kids could use the backpacks,” Chadwell said. “But we can't afford to keep replenishing backpacks, or even handmade fabric bags, on a weekly basis.”
Chadwell explained the meals are now served in plastic bags that can fit in children's backpacks, and each bag consists of two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners, two beverages and two snacks, to get the kids through the weekend.
“Many of these kids are on free and reduced-price meal programs at their schools during the week,” Welker said.
Chadwell said the meals cost $6 per bag, and Chimacum Backpacks For Kids assembles between 70 to 90 such bags each week, serving students in need at every grade level, from primary through high school, and even specialized educational services such as the PI Program at Chimacum Middle School.
“It usually takes a month or two after the start of the school year for the actual numbers to settle down, so we know how many students we'll be serving,” Chadwell said. “We're able to identify the number of kids, but the kids' identities remain completely anonymous.”
Janie Redifer serves as a liaison to each of the area schools, checking with staff ranging from administrators to teachers to determine their students' respective needs.
Just as the feedback Redifer receives helps Chimacum Backpacks For Kids adjust its weekly numbers of bagged meals, so too did Chadwell acknowledge that the adult volunteers running the program have had to adjust their selections to match their young recipients' actual tastes.
“We used to think, 'Oh, we can pack all these items in the meal bags, and really give them a feast,'” Chadwell said. “But on the school buses, we were finding various food items left behind, and they were all the things that required more extensive preparation.”
Since then, Chadwell noted all the meal items require no more cooking than being placed in the microwave.
“They're kid-friendly meals,” Chadwell said. “Rather than mac and cheese that requires milk and butter, we give them the kind that you just add water to. They're more expensive, but still nutritious.”
Chadwell also conceded Chimacum Backpacks For Kids would probably spend “most of this school year” searching for a new type of inexpensive food container, since so many grocery stores are phasing out plastic bags because of environmental concerns.
“We've been talking with the folks over at QFC, asking them, 'So what's your plan?'” Chadwell said.
Karen and Harold Jensen were among the founders of Chimacum Backpacks For Kids in 2010, back when it started out as an offshoot of their Lutheran church. Although Karen passed away Aug. 26, she lived long enough to write an article for the August 2018 Port Ludlow Voice, promoting the group's transition from being part of the church to becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
While Harold Jensen deems Chimacum Backpacks For Kids “my wife's legacy,” he passed the idea on to the rest of their congregation after observing a similar program during his time as a psychologist in the South Kitsap School District.
“I just found the idea and served as a laborer,” Harold said. “The rest of the group took it and ran with it. We used to pack meals out of Pam Kelly's house.”
Both Jensen and Chadwell agreed that Karen was “a great grant-writer,” whom Chadwell credited with giving their group “more stabilized funding.”
However, with ambitious programs such as the summer extension of their meals, which saw them assemble and distribute 400 weekend meal bags over this past summer to the Jefferson County Library and the Irondale Church — up from 250 in summer 2017 — Chimacum Backpacks For Kids could still benefit from the community's generosity.
To that end, Welker, Chadwell and Jensen invited the community to Chimacum Backpacks For Kids' fourth annual “Brewfest by the Bay” fundraiser at The Bay Club, at 120 Spinnaker Place in Port Ludlow, from noon to 4 p.m. Oct. 6.