Pawtucket Backpackers running like a well-oiled machine

Pawtucket Backpackers running like a well-oiled machine

A faithful group of volunteers, of all ages, continues to contribute hours each week filling bags with food for local students.

PAWTUCKET – Six years in, the Pawtucket Backpackers is holding strong to its mission of providing supplemental food to children and families in crisis, with a committed core of volunteers, each with their own tasks, showing no hint of slowing down.

Kaydi McQuade, board vice president of a group that’s now a 501(c)(3), previously served on the Pawtucket School Committee before moving to Lincoln. She said she remains committed to making a difference through the effort.

“It is honestly the easiest, most direct thing I can think of in the world, and I can’t imagine not doing it as long as it’s needed,” she told The Valley Breeze. The idea that children are going hungry, and that she can help fill them up with a time commitment of two hours each week? “Sign me up,” says McQuade.

Backpackers volunteers have added two charter schools, International Charter and Blackstone Academy in Pawtucket, to their list of other Pawtucket public schools. Since 2014, the group has operated separately from the Pawtucket school food service, after Chartwells replaced Sodexo. Headquarters moved to Blackstone Academy at that time.

The all-volunteer group’s work has remained consistently excellent, said McQuade, with most who show up to pack bags every Wednesday doing so since the beginning. The donations and volunteers keep coming, she said, allowing the group to help 225 or more children each week.

“The need stays pretty much the same,” she said.

The group would likely need an executive director with a substantial amount of time to pour into soliciting funds to grow it substantially, she said.

Most who volunteer just happen to hear about the circumstances the group is trying to address and are so appalled that children are still going hungry that they start chipping in and never leave, she said. The Backpackers has gotten to a certain level, is working like clockwork, and the people who keep it running love what they do, she said.

Amy Macedo is the president of the Pawtucket Backackers. School board member Joanne Bonollo, who founded the groups, says she remains a fan and supporter.

The number of children needing food fluctuates by time of year, said McQuade, but typically stays around 225, about double the number when the group started. There’s always a spike in January, as heating season is kicking into high gear and children are heading back to school after eating all the food in the house over the holidays.

“It’s heat or eat time,” says McQuade.

The highest number of students ever served at any one time was around 300, she said. Volunteers have refined their operation to a point where all the food is packed up in about an hour.

“Everyone knows what they’re doing,” she said. Everyone giggles and talks while they work, and then suddenly look up and there are 50 sacks, each with five bags apiece in them, ready to load and deliver, said McQuade.

About three-quarters of Pawtucket’s 9,000 students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, and the Pawtucket Backpackers helps some of the neediest of those, as decided by staff.

There are many misconceptions about those in need, said McQuade, but most families served by the Pawtucket Backpackers are “families like mine.” If her family lost a job, they’re really only about three weeks away from being in trouble, she said. Most who come for help are just “bumping along” until some outside factor, such as a car needing new tires, a baby ear infection forcing them to stay home, or lousy weather preventing them from getting the hours they need at an outside job, set them so far behind they can’t catch up and are forced to choose between paying rent and utilities or adequate food.

Many people will ask how the volunteers know for sure that they’re giving to the right child, she said, but those questions are the last ones on their minds.

“We don’t care why this child doesn’t have enough food in their belly,” she said.

The Backpackers still buy their food from the Rhode Island Community Food Bank and collect it through various food drives. City-based toymaker Hasbro remains a valued corporate sponsor, with workers there allowed to work two hours twice a month to contribute.

Volunteers take the food to the schools, which have various processes for distributing the food.

For more on the Pawtucket Backpackers, including how you can contribute, visit pawtucketbackpackers.weebly.com/ .

Bags full of food sit ready to be distributed to local students in need as part of the Pawtucket Backpackers program.