Until I visited Charles Haskell Elementary in Edmond, Oklahoma, recently, I’d never heard of the weekend backpack programs that some schools and local food banks use to provide students from low-income families enough to eat on Saturdays and Sundays.
And until I met Becky Walderbach, Haskell Elementary’s librarian, I’d never considered the lengths that one in her profession might go to in order to ensure that those same kids also have something to read on those days.
In the library after my presentation to Haskell’s students, the backpacks came up in my conversation with Becky and local Barnes & Noble representative Michelle Mauk. Becky and Michelle filled me in on the basics of the program, and I asked Becky if she would tell me more via email.
Below, I’ve posted a slightly edited version of my ensuing exchange with Becky Walderbach.
If you know of a similar program — or think you might want to get one started at your school — I’d love to hear about it in the comments section that follows.
Chris: What can you tell me about the weekend program before you and books got involved?
Becky: The perception of Edmond is that we are very affluent and that there aren’t any poor people here. At one time, many years ago, this was close to reality but not anymore. I’m sure you’re familiar with the federal free and reduced-price meal programs. The participation in this program is traditionally a good indicator of the poverty level in your school population; Charles Haskell has about 30% of our students enrolled in the program. For some of the children in this program, our cafeteria meals provide the majority of their nutrition. It has become apparent that those students often go hungry on the weekends.
Because of the very high poverty level in some areas, someone came up with the idea of sending home backpacks of food with these children every weekend. In the spring of 2012 our counselor started the program here at Haskell. Our community is very fortunate that we have a wonderful food bank and they supply the food to put in the backpacks each week. [Note: the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma serves Edmond and the surrounding area.]
Chris: How did the idea come about to start including books in the food backpacks at your school?
Becky: The idea of putting books in our backpacks began about the time we started sending backpacks home. When I first became librarian at Charles Haskell in January 1999, our socioeconomic level was much different. Our attendance area was more affluent, we had many stay-at-home moms that were able to volunteer at the school, and the majority of our students were able to buy books at our book fairs.
Over time, the area around our school that had once been open farm land had small starter homes and apartments built on it. Although we still have several upper-end neighborhoods in our area, we now have a large number of families that live in these modest homes. We still had students that walked into the book fair with a twenty dollar bill to shop, but we had many children who had no chance to shop at the book fair at all. It was a classic example of “Haves” and “Have-Nots.” I found this very upsetting!
We still had students that walked into the book fair with a twenty dollar bill to shop, but we had many children who had no chance to shop at the book fair at all. It was a classic example of “Haves” and “Have-Nots.”
As I thought about what I could do, it occurred to me that our “Backpack Kids” were an obvious place to start. If their families were struggling to put food on the table, it made sense that there could be very little money to put books in their children’s hands.
The next question: What books would I give them? That answer came to me quickly. Our families that do have means are wonderful about donating books to our library once their children have outgrown them. We had always supplemented our library collection with these donations, but you only need a finite number of copies of any one title. We had a small collection of these extra books available; those were my first “Backpack Books.”
Chris: How has your Backpacks Books program grown or changed in the four years that you’ve been doing it? Have there been improvements or things that you’ve learned to do differently along the way?
Becky: When we first started adding books to the backpacks I was a little less organized. I kept track of the books distributed more as a grade-level group. I realized I wasn’t sure which child got which book, which made it difficult to avoid duplicates.
I now have a list of backpack number, grade, and gender for each child. I keep a log sheet for each one and record the book I send home each week. I have post-its that I put on the books so they are placed in the correct backpack. We have fifth grade students that help the counselor assemble and distribute the backpacks each Friday and they actually put the books in as part of their routine.
I had a small stockpile of donated books that helped me begin. Over the years I have supplemented the donations with books I buy on the Half Price Books clearance shelf, used-book stores, garage sales, and the Scholastic Warehouse Sale. As you are aware, I have recently started sharing the program with others (like Michelle Mauk at Barnes & Noble) in hopes that we can have a good variety of books donated. As I mentioned to you when you were at Charles Haskell, I’ve tried to quietly share the need for book donations but not publicize it to a degree that it gets back to the students that are recipients in any negative way.
Chris: How has the Charles Haskell Elementary community — the recipients themselves and their parents, but also other students, families, faculty, etc. — responded to Backpack Books? The program has depended on your involvement, and it’s obviously no small thing. What has encouraged you to keep your efforts going these past four years?
Becky: To be honest, I’ve not ever had much feedback from the students and parents that receive the books in backpacks. I’m sure that’s in large part because I’ve never publicized that I do it. It is probable that they don’t realize it isn’t just a regular part of the program. One time the counselor told me that a particular child always opened her backpack immediately to see what book she got that week. That story alone will keep me going for a long time!
One time the counselor told me that a particular child always opened her backpack immediately to see what book she got that week. That story alone will keep me going for a long time!
The parents that are aware of the program (ones that are part of our parent organization and help secure books) have always been excited about the idea and VERY supportive. Each fall our school does some type of activity to support the community. We’ve done several food drives, collected supplies for the Infant Crisis center, items for the homeless, etc. In the fall of 2014 one of our moms organized a used book drive. Not only did it supply books for the backpack program, we put additional books in our teachers’ classroom libraries and donated some of the books (those outside our needed age range) to other charities. Our school community is made up of many wonderful, caring families that are very aware of the dichotomy of the population we serve. In short, anyone I’ve ever told about this is very supportive!
I’m attaching a few pictures I took during the process this week and one of me and two of our fifth graders putting a book in one of the backpacks.
You have no idea how flattering it is that you have found this of interest and are writing about it. I’m often amazed that others see the value in something that has become a personal passion. I’m very blessed that I have an opportunity to try to make a small difference for these Haskell Rascals.