By Madeleine Fojtik
Generous Hands, a local nonprofit, is turning 10 years old this year. It began in 2004 when a group of local women noticed that many students came to school hungry on Monday mornings. They asked themselves, “What do children who receive breakfast and lunch at school do for food on the weekends?”
This group of women, many of whom worked at Sunset Lake Elementary or in the health care field, were also part of a small group Bible study at Lakeland Reformed Church.
They knew that the children received free and reduced lunches at school through a federally-assisted meal program. In the early 2000’s, approximately 25 percent of children attending Sunset Lake Elementary received free and reduced lunches.
One of the women, Paula Schriemer, read an article in the Detroit Free Press describing a program in Missouri that provided weekend backpacks of food for hungry kids. She presented the idea to the group to help kids at Sunset.
After some initial skepticism and then lots of praying, learning and investigating, the Generous Hands organization was formed, and their Friday Pack program began to send home weekend backpacks of food to 10 children at Sunset Lake.
Principal Pat Moreno, who fully supported piloting the program at Sunset, said, “Sometimes we (professional educators) get caught up in educating our children and someone from the outside looking in can see a need and make it a priority. We know a hungry child has a difficult time learning; that is a fact.”
Hunger can also cause serious health problems, including impaired cognitive development, stunted physical growth, physical weakness, and anemia.
So, the mission of this new grassroots organization was to benefit hungry children by addressing their physical, emotional, nutritional and educational well-being. By the spring of 2005, paperwork was underway for Generous Hands to become a new 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
Today, nearly 34 percent of all Vicksburg students receive free and reduced-price lunch, so the Friday Pack program has expanded to all five Vicksburg schools, providing 220 children with weekly backpacks of food.
“There are so many children who desperately need this service,” said Sheri Louis, Generous Hands executive director.
In addition, several other school districts – Parchment, Colon and Paramount Charter Academy – purchase these packs for their students. Overall, the operation that began, essentially, in a closet-sized room at Sunset Lake Elementary has grown today to serve over 300 students each week from a 2400 square foot warehouse at 113 South Kalamazoo Ave. in downtown Vicksburg.
In addition, Generous Hands has assisted several other local school districts including Schoolcraft, Sturgis, Constantine and Mattawan with creating their own backpack programs.
The approximate cost of providing a Friday Pack to one hungry child is $20 a month and logistically there are many resources and organization that go into having backpacks ready each Friday. The grassroots support by the Vicksburg community and the greater Kalamazoo area with generous monetary donations, food donations and volunteers has been essential to the survival of the organization over the past 10 years.
As a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization Generous Hands obtains nutritious, low-cost food from local food banks and other resources. Children are recommended (confidentially) by the school staff, and then provided each week with a backpack of nutritious, kid-friendly food items like Easy Mac, dry cereal, fruit cups, granola bars, 100 percent juice boxes, and pretzels.
Each week, these packs are picked up by each school’s Generous Hands site coordinator and then are placed in children’s lockers on Friday afternoon.
“These volunteers at Sunset Lake are a joy to have working in our building and can’t do enough for our children,” said Moreno.
The backpacks are returned on Monday to the warehouse to be refilled for the following Friday. During the summer, families are offered the opportunity to continue receiving Friday Packs each week although they are asked to come to the warehouse for pickup.
As an additional benefit, each family is offered a weekly voucher redeemable at the Vicksburg Family Fare for milk, bread or eggs up to a total of $7 per week. This has proven to be the most expensive part of the Friday Pack program, but it provides a predictable source of protein for growing children.
Hygiene packs with toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo and deodorant (for the older students) are distributed several times during the school year to children who receive Friday Packs. In addition, a grant from the nonprofit organization, The Conservation Fund, allows Generous Hands to give families coupons to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and cheese at the Vicksburg Farmers Market.
“This has proven to be quite successful,” Louis said.
Continued Support for Generous Hands
Many people volunteer at Generous Hands’ warehouse, but monetary and food donations are always appreciated.
“We always need 18 ounce jars of peanut butter, 100 percent juice boxes, fruit cups and applesauce,” said Louis.
Each November, Generous Hands has a 500 Campaign fund drive, which asks for a monthly donation of at least $12 to help operate the Friday Pack Program. Also, the Generous Hands Endowment Fund was recently launched through the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, which ensures that the mission of Generous Hands will continue into the future.
Memorial donations and designated planned gifts will be used to grow this endowment. More information about these options can be found at http://www.generoushands.org.
Did you know?
• Generous Hands received the Star Award for Community Service in 2006
• Generous Hands received the American Humanics Student Association of Western Michigan University award for the Best Emerging Non-Profit Organization of 2006
• In 2012 there were 1120 volunteers (531 adults and 589 children) providing 1,115 hours of support at Generous Hands
The founding members of Generous Hands were Sue Dornbos, Laura Wilson, Ginger Hill, Jennie Schmidt, Mary Elzinga, Penny Allen, Paula Schriemer, Vicki Ackerman, Phyllis Smith and Kristi Houchin.