By Bill Sheets Herald Writer
EVERETT — There are more hungry kids out there than one might think.
Thanks to the Packs for Kids program, more of those children are now coming to school with full stomachs.
For three years, volunteers have collected food for needy children at Olympic View Middle School and Mukilteo Elementary School and put it in backpacks for them to take home on weekends.
On Mondays, the kids bring the packs back and they’re filled with food again for the following week.
This year, the program was expanded to Horizon Elementary School in Everett, which along with the other two schools is part of the Mukilteo School District.
Children in 14 families each at Olympic View and Mukilteo Elementary are participating, said Oran Smith-Osterman, the program’s organizer.
Packs for Kids just began at Horizon in October and 30 families there are receiving food already, said Mark Robb, dean of students.
“The fifth-graders have been hugging me when they get their backpacks full of food,” Robb said, adding that they’re not usually so demonstrative.
“They say, ‘Thank you so much, we don’t have any food, we really need this.’ “
Many of the families at Horizon don’t always have cars or easy transportation to food banks, Robb said.
Smith-Osterman said three years ago, when her stepdaughter was attending Olympic View, the principal told her that many children were coming to school on Mondays having eaten little or nothing over the weekends.
Though Mukilteo is considered a well-to-do community, one-third of the children at both Olympic View and Mukilteo Elementary are eligible for free or reduced lunch programs, according to Smith-Osterman.
She and her husband started the program at Olympic View and it quickly spread to Mukilteo Elementary, which is located next to the middle school.
Volunteers held food drives at grocery stores over the summer and supplemented from their own pockets and donations. Backpacks are used because they’re sturdy, can be reused and don’t stand out as much as grocery bags.
Food items include non-perishables such as macaroni and cheese, Tuna Helper, granola, protein bars, puddings, applesauce, raisins, oatmeal and cereal.
“You could see the joy and enthusiasm” among the children, Smith-Osterman said.
She stepped away from Packs for Kids when her stepdaughter graduated and other volunteers kept it going at the two schools, she said.
Then, when Smith-Osterman began working for Boeing, she was looking for a community service project and checked in to see if Packs for Kids had grown or spread to other schools. She was surprised to hear that it hadn’t.
“Now I’ve taken it on,” she said.
Smith-Osterman learned that 88 percent of the students at Horizon Elementary, located at 222 W. Casino Road in Everett, are eligible for free or reduced lunches. She contacted Robb and Packs for Kids was started there this fall.
About 15 volunteers are now running the program at the three schools combined.
“I’m hoping that every year we bring on one new school,” Smith-Osterman said.
It costs $10 per week to fill a pack and each pack costs $10 up front, so it costs $360 per family per school year, she said. This means that at the three schools altogether it will take more than $20,000 per year to keep Packs for Kids going.
Fred Meyer donated the backpacks for Horizon this year, Smith-Osterman said. As much food as possible is collected at the food drives but it doesn’t cover all the needs, she said.
An active PTA at the Mukilteo schools has been finding the money for the program, but that’s not yet the case at Horizon, she said.
The group plans to apply for grants, and “we’ll need to have a lot of community assistance,” she said.
Smith-Osterman said she received reduced-price lunches at school as a child and knows how much it helped.
Many families now have lost jobs, homes and health insurance because of the recession, she said.
“That’s the family that really needs the assistance right now,” she said.
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to help
For more information on Packs for Kids, contact Oran Smith-Osterman at email@example.com or 206-372-0401.