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Donated Backpacks Lighten the Load for Smithfield Families

By Jane Fusco

America may be one of the richest countries in the world, yet one in five children goes hungry, according to the nation’s leading hunger relief charity, Feeding America (feedingamerica.org).

These children are not just in poverty-stricken areas; they could be the children next door, in the schoolyard around the corner, or our co-workers’ kids.

For the last four years, the Smithfield Rotary Club has sponsored a backpack program that provides needy children of the town with healthy food and snacks when school meals are unavailable to them.

Ann Cote, Bryant University’s Controller and longtime Rotary member, organized the program after she met with principal Laurie Sullivan of Old County Road School and social worker Kerri Lanzieri. Cote said that Sullivan suggested a weekly backpack program for families that need assistance after hearing about the success of other similar programs. “They indicated that there are students who are unable to bring healthy snacks to school, and are left out at snack time,” Cote said.

About 300 backpacks are filled and delivered each year, according to Cote. Bryant University donates the backpacks and Rotary members fill them with food and provisions that are given to the children on a weekly basis to take home. The children return the empty backpack the next week to be filled again for the following week.

“It becomes more than just about the backpacks,” said Rotary volunteer Camilla Spliid. “It becomes about the family, especially the children, and seeing the reality of their situation.”

Pantry staples such as cereal, peanut butter and jelly, macaroni and cheese, and canned soup are also included in the backpack, as well as personal hygiene items. “There are also children that come to school to brush their teeth and wash up because they don’t have toothpaste or soap at home,” Cote said.

The program was recently extended into the summer months when the children are out of school.

“We originally only delivered during the school year, but knowing the need is also great in the summer when children aren’t at school and are no longer receiving free or reduced lunches, we began doing home deliveries each week during the summer as well,” Cote said. Backpacks are delivered directly to the homes in the summer and picked up the following week.

The backpack system works well, Cote said, especially during school months because all children carry backpacks and it does not call attention to the donation. “Children’s self-esteem has grown because they feel like they are doing something important to help their family,” said John Garcia, Rotary member and former president. “The pride the kids have in themselves is worth every single dollar, second, minute and hour we spend on the Smithfield Rotary Kids Backpack Program.”

The program has generated a great deal of positive feedback from the school administrators and recipients. Cote said that some parents and children place thank you notes in the backpacks. “It warms my heart. I keep every note,” Cote said.

For more information about the Backpack program, contact Ann Cote at (401) 232-6563 or acote1@bryant.edu.