Weekend Backpacks for Homeless Kids

All the organizations receiving grants from the BWGC are grateful and most put the money to good use, but with just the right recipient, who gets a grant at just the right time, our money can be transformational in an almost magical way.

Such is the case with Weekend Backpacks for Homeless Kids, the organization started by Sandie Nagel in her dining room in 2014 with the goal of helping to alleviate the plight of homeless food-insecure school children who often go hungry over the weekends and during school breaks.

At the time we first met Sandie and her volunteers, her program operated under the umbrella of a Jewish women's organization. Our questions about an intertwined budget and governance prompted Sandie to apply for section 501(c) 3 status as a nonprofit organization, and this status was granted in December of 2017. Her organization now has its own board, a robust administrative structure and a transparent budget.

When Backpacks first applied for a grant, the organization operated in 11 schools, feeding 190 children and projected that our grant money would allow them to feed an additional 50 children. Now, half way through the grant cycle, the program already encompasses 14 schools supplying emergency weekend backpacks to 304 children—an increase of 50%. Only the lack of drivers and storage space is keeping that number from expanding by another hundred or two before the end of the school year. Sandie calls their potential "limitless".

This rapid growth is in part due to the clever leveraging of our grant money and in part to a seeming set-back. Shortly after receiving our grant, the organization lost the free space that the Chimes had let them use once a week to assemble the food and pack the backpacks. Undaunted, members of the organization scouted around and secured a huge space, owned by Walgreens in Pikesville, that was donated for their use year-round for a guaranteed three years. This new space allows them to buy and store much larger quantities of food from participating stores and the Maryland Food Bank and to avail themselves of better pricing through volume discounts.

With their improved finances they now have the potential to be able to supply backpacks two days a week and fill them even more generously with nutritious foods that need no refrigeration or cooking. Their next step is likely to be the acquisition of a van to make distributing the backpacks easier and allow them to reach more children. Currently, school deliveries are limited to what fits into a volunteer driver's car, which are 30-35 backpacks at most. Yet a number of schools they collaborate with may have up to 100 homeless students who could benefit from receiving a backpack weekly.

As word about the organization spreads through volunteers, members of supporting organizations and talks the indefatigable founder, Sandie Nagel, gives to any group that will have her, the volunteer base has grown exponentially. Volunteers from a number of large organizations, such as Johns Hopkins, T. Rowe Price, Blue Cross and others including several retirement communities have participated in a "day of service" organizing and packing supplies and often also donating money. Additionally, several volunteers from McVets, a shelter and rehabilitation and training organization for homeless veterans help out on a weekly basis with some of the heavy lifting that is required.

And like the seeds of cowslips, blown far and wide by the wind, the spirit that drives the backpacks program reaches across the country and across generations. Children and grandchildren of volunteers join in hands-on activities and fundraising. One boy donated several hundred dollars of his Bar Mitzvah money to the organization and helps organize his school's weekly donation of food to them. A visiting grandchild took the idea back to her community in California and is organizing a similar program there.

This is so clearly a success story with the potential of having a huge and lasting impact on one of the neediest populations in our city. Learning more about it certainly increased this reporter's joy and will hopefully lift the spirits of all BWGC members, whose contributions made support for this program possible.

By Sabine Oishi