The Mount Harmony Baptist Church of Matthews is helping feed 21 families of Stallings Elementary School through the Backpack Ministry program.
The program was organized by Tammy Melton, director of Youth and Recreation for the church for grades seven-12, and is managed in partnership with Carolyn Nichols, school counselor for Stallings Elementary.
Melton, 46, started the program when she learned there were a number of children receiving free lunch services through the school but who were without food at home on the weekends. After talking to head pastor Dr. Buddy Pigg, Melton gained his approval to meet with Nichols to discuss how the church might help.
What sets the MHBC program apart from other community backpack programs is that it is confidential: Each backpack is numbered and represents a family of four to five people.
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The program also is not based solely upon statistical data, like the free lunch program; instead, it is managed in partnership with the school counselor, who knows the students receiving assistance and understands the family's situation.
Melton oversees the program in a well-orchestrated weekly routine run with the donations and services of the church members and its volunteers.
On Wednesday evenings, Melton meets with her youth group for game night, dinner and Bible study. After dinner, the backpacks are loaded.
"The students pack the bags and speak a prayer upon them," said Melton "The key verse is from John 6:5: 'When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, "Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?"'"
After the prayer, the bags are loaded in storage area to be ready for the next morning.
On Thursday morning, church volunteers deliver the backpacks to Stallings Elementary, where they are collected by Nichols and placed in a holding area for the children to pick up Friday after school.
The children return the backpacks to school Wednesday morning, and Melton picks them up Wednesday afternoon - and the routine starts again.
The program started in February and quickly grew from helping six children to 21 backpacks that feed 86 people, including parents and siblings.
Boxes of cereal, canned goods, pasta and other nonperishable lightweight foods are among the items donated.
"At first we were planning a menu to feed one child, but now we are feeding an entire family," said Melton.
To meet the increasing need, Melton started a contest with her Sunday school classes to raffle off a prize to the class that brings in the most donations during a four-week period.
The first two weeks, the contest already had generated more than 2,000 pounds of food.
"I think the children at the school are happy to be able to help their parents to provide for their families during this difficult time, and the program has generated a lot of excitement here at the church and is an additional source of unity," said Melton.