FEATURE ‌ Eat More, Learn More 

Stall High School fights kids' hunger with backpack program

click to enlarge Sending food home in backpacks for needy kids never became a beast of burden for Stall High's former school nurse, Leah Willis
  • Sending food home in backpacks for needy kids never became a beast of burden for Stall High's former school nurse, Leah Willis

The Monday morning a student fainted of hunger in class was enough for Stall High School's former nurse, Leah Willis, to know something was seriously wrong with the home life of many of the kids who frequented her on-campus clinic.

Once she figured out the fainter wasn't hopped up on goofballs, or whatever the kids call the drugs these days, Willis began asking probing questions of her dizzy patient. No, the student wasn't faking it to get out of classwork or a test first thing that Monday morning.

The student finally admitted that the last meal that had passed his lips was the free lunch he had received the Friday before in the school's cafeteria. Because of the realities of being an orphan living in a tough situation, there had been no food for him over the weekend where he was staying.

Stall High's classrooms are filled with the children of the working poor, with more than three-quarters of the student body receiving free and reduced lunches. The entire school, which removed all soda and junk food from its vending machines thanks to Willis, receives a free breakfast every day of the school week.

But even then, she says, only 20 percent of the student body were taking advantage of the most important meal of the day, sometimes because late buses meant kids had to rush through homeroom.

The more Willis thought about the symptoms her patient presented that morning, the more it occurred to her that a lot of the 80-100 kids she saw on a daily basis were struggling with more than pre-test flu, raging hormones, and headaches.

They were fighting a battle America had supposedly already won: hunger.

As the first line of defense and as a public health official, Willis began casting about for a way to help kids struggling with weekend pangs. Then she remembered a news clipping a family member had sent her about a pilot program in a Midwest school district that sent food home with needy kids.

Willis decided to start sending home backpacks stuffed with enough healthy, nonperishable, easily prepared foods — soup, tuna, grits, and the occasional sugary treat, like a box of Pop Tarts — to provide seven meals for that kid and any siblings at home.

Rather than bemoan a family constellation gone awry, or alert DSS that a child was potentially being neglected, Willis, who left the school two weeks ago to become a nurse manager at a downtown hospital, wanted to at least put a Band-Aid on the problem.

"First of all, this is for the kids put in a situation not of their own making," says an impassioned Willis, who didn't want to create a program that would benefit kids by getting their parents in trouble, because she knew no one would step up and say they needed food at home.

"We've got to build trust, and when the kids learn that this is confidential, and we give them backpack after backpack, after a while, the stories start coming out," says Willis.

Sometimes, she'd hear stories of parents not being neglectful, just out of work and without a car, so they couldn't drive to nearby food banks to stock up until they landed a job. Sometimes, she'd hear stories of parents not able to feed their brood because they were locked up.

One special education student asked for a backpack because her family was struggling to pay for the extra medical care she needed.

"These issues come up for the working poor," says Willis. "Sometimes, families have to decide what to do with their 'extra' money — pay medical bills or buy food."

She knows the donated backpacks — brimming with donated foodstuffs from area organizations, individuals, businesses, and churches — won't solve systemic problems in society. But Willis also knows that at least her kids aren't going hungry.

These days, about 80 backpacks go home every Friday, and Willis figures the school distributes roughly 4,000 meals a month through them.

To enroll in the program, which is now run by school worker Sue Winder, all a student has to do is walk up and say they need a backpack. Many kids are brought into the fold by other kids who are either currently taking home backpacks or needed them in the past.

It's all done on the honor system, as no names are written down, and the school's NROTC cadets place the packs in a spot where the needy students can come in and get them on their own, undetected.

"We might be getting taken advantage of, but I do know these kids aren't not getting fed anymore," says Willis, who places follow-up calls with the school's guidance counselors to see what else the community can help provide for these kids.

So far, her Backpack Buddies program has been able to provide food for every kid, every week since it started — quite an accomplishment considering that it can't receive supplies from the Lowcountry Food Bank because it doesn't have a not-for-profit status. Yet.

"Who knows," says Willis, "maybe some lawyer reading this will help us get our 501(c)3 status."

Recently, Jenni Pritchard, a "fitness technician" at the Ashley Phosphate location of Curves, a workout club for ladies, showed up and did what she could for the program, dropping off the final run of a 300-pound food delivery from the back of her 2004 Suburban.

"We've been talking with them about making this an ongoing food drive," says Pritchard, fresh from a hug from Willis, who hopes to pass on the program to all the other, poorer Title 1 schools in the district.

Down the clean and brightly lit hall — which looks appreciably more inviting since the school district spent time and money renovating the school — principal Dr. David Basile sits in his office, awed at the work the program has accomplished.

Basile dismisses those who have publicly criticized the program as not getting to the root of the problem — bad parents — as being in the "let them eat cake" camp.

With all the challenges the kids at his school face, a fiery Basile says the food in the backpacks gives more of them a better chance of passing the standardized tests the state and the county are requiring.

"Kids will always find a way to survive, but it's our job to create a vision of what's right for them and what's right for America," says Basile.

And with a full belly, it's easier for a kid to have a "vision" of what any test — school or life — throws at them.

It certainly improved Willis' fainter, who is heading off to college next year on a full scholarship.

To find out more about Backpack Buddies, or to find out how to donate to the program, call the school at 764-2200.


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