Program swaps books for food in students' backpacks for the weekendSubmitted: 02/08/2018
Story By Phylicia Ashley

Program swaps books for food in students' backpacks for the weekend
RHINELANDER - When the last school bell rings on Fridays, most kids get excited to run home. A group of volunteers make sure no child in Rhinelander goes home to an empty pantry.

"It's hard to fathom that there are this many [students] in need," said volunteer Jackie Popko.

Thousands of empty backpacks have passed through the hands of nearly 30 volunteers during the last seven years.

"We accommodate as many people as we can with as many issues as we can," said volunteer Sue Ross. 

These volunteers feel firsthand how many Rhinelander families don't get enough food. 

"Knowing people don't have the opportunity to feed their children and we have the opportunity to help them," said Ross. 

They get the opportunity when volunteers drop off students' backpacks every week at the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry. 

"[It's] very fulfilling to know you're helping other children," said Ross. 

These women pack more than 100 backpacks a week so no kid in the Rhinelander area goes home over the weekend hungry. Each kid goes home with two sets of breakfast, dinner, fruits, and vegetables.

"We don't know the children we're helping but we know we're helping kids," said Ross.

Seeing the same needs and challenges almost a decade after the Weekend Food for Kids Program started leaves a bittersweet feeling for these volunteers. 

"It's very important. I guess that's why I'm still here," said Popko.

The straps on the backpacks hold the weight of compassion from the volunteers.

"We're kind of like a well-oiled machine," said Ross.

They pack bags with care. 

"Every kid is awesome, every kid is special, and if we can make their life easier or happier, we're in," said Ross.

When the students get their bags back Friday afternoon, they have one extra reason to run home when the final school bell rings. The bags are packed with donated and purchased food through grants by the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry. The pantry says it's looking for more food and monetary donations.

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