Dairy farmer Niamh Matthews occasionally meets friends for coffee where they discuss various topics, including needs within their rural southeast Georgia community.
Their conversations began focusing on the reality that some of their children’s classmates were at risk for hunger, specifically during weekends when they no longer had access to their school’s feeding program.
Before long, the women had shared enough heartbreaking stories. They set forth on a mission to make sure these children would no longer go hungry on the weekends.
“It’s important for these kids to not worry about food,” Matthews said. “Kids are supposed to be playing. They have no control over their circumstances. They don’t understand why they’re not getting fed.”
The program – called Weekend Blessings – started on a shoestring budget in November 2012. The three founding families used their own money and shopped at bulk stores, clipped coupons and searched for sales to stuff donated backpacks with nonperishable food, such as soup, cereal, crackers, fruit juice, granola bars and a mac-and-cheese offering. Teachers recommended students they felt could benefit from the generosity.
“We definitely didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into,” Matthews said. “Those first few weeks were very intimidating trying to get the backpacks to the students. We managed.”
Little by little, word began to spread about the program. Teachers donated money as did other community members, churches and civic organizations. The women built a Facebook page and a real estate agent donated office space where the food is stored and packaged each week. A local high school, through its Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) program, pitched in by making Weekend Blessings its service project for the year.
Weekend Blessings has grown from serving one Emanuel County school to four, reaching 135 students in all grades. Matthews has experienced the impact her efforts have had on the kids – and on her.
“When we first delivered the backpacks we thought the kids might get embarrassed or nervous. But, they were standing at the classroom door when they heard the trolley coming with their bag,” Matthews said. “It’s pretty emotional for us. Usually by the end of the day, one of us is telling the other to pull herself together.
“We don’t know the kids personally, but we want them to know on Fridays that someone loves them and they will have food over the weekend. That means a lot.”