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'Blessings' are good for the body and soul

December 22, 2011

Mercymount fifth-grader Ben Simmons helps fill backpacks at Mount Saint Rita Health Centre in Cumberland on Wednesday with other classmates, including Kayle Gladuas, center. Also pictured is Sister Antona Tognetti. The backpacks, filled with food items, will be sent to an adopted elementary school in Woonsocket.

CUMBERLAND – As the saying goes, giving is its own reward. But at Mt. St. Rita Health Centre, they’ve figured out a way to double the reward.
It’s called Blessings in a Backpack, a program that provides needy children from Woonsocket with food for the weekend – when they can’t get a meal in school.
Once a week, a group of volunteers at the nursing home and rehab facility stuff backpacks with cans of tuna, applesauce and other treats – enough to bridge the gap between Fridays and Mondays. But it’s no ordinary group of volunteers.
Roughly a dozen are elderly residents of Mt. St. Rita, including some who are members of the Sisters of Mercy, the Catholic order of nuns that also runs the facility. These frail but energetic seniors (at least one is in a wheelchair), throw themselves into the backpack-stuffing chores alongside fifth-graders from nearby Mercymount Country Day School – children who are a fraction of their age.
Though Blessings in a Backpack is an international program that helps supply more than 55,000 children with stopgap nutrition, Mt. St. Rita has pioneered the only chapter that’s also tapping the energy of youth to lift the spirits of the old in the process.
“It’s the only intergenerational chapter of the national organization,” says volunteer coordinator Elizabeth Reis. “We’re bringing senior citizens together with elementary school children for a cause.”
It’s working just fine for Sister Mary Nora Smith, a onetime Catholic school principal. At 83 years old, she hasn’t lost her desire to serve as an example to youngsters or instill in them the values she cherishes. But she, too, gets something in return from the partnership.
“It helps to renew the spirit,” she says. “We were all teachers once, you know.”
Sister Angela King, 91, agrees.
Wrapping her arms around two of her young helpers, one on either side of her as she sat at the backpack assembly table, Sister King exclaimed, “These kids are the greatest.”
The same group of resident volunteers from Mt. St. Rita has been donating time to Blessings in a Backpack since the first batch of food-filled satchels were delivered to 225 “adopted” students in Woonsocket on Sept. 9. Mercymount rotates the student volunteers every six weeks.
“It’s really great because we’re very fortunate and not all kids can be as fortunate as we are,” says Giovanna Sgalia, 10, of Wrentham, Mass. “It makes me feel good to know I’m helping.”
Reis says the rules of the program forbid organizers from identifying the school where children benefit from the program. She said that Blessings in a Backpack offers the supplementary nutrition program only to so-called Title 1 schools, where a majority of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches because their families are struggling financially.
It takes about $30,000 a year to run the program, all of which comes from charitable donations and grants. During this, the program’s inaugural year, donors have included Sisters of Mercy, Tufts Health Plan Foundation, Serve RI and, most recently, the Woonsocket Rotary Club.
The city Rotary pitched in after Ernest Blanchette, a member of the organization and the director of marketing for Mt. St. Rita, heard that Blessings in a Backpack was running out of money. The Rotary presented the health care facility with a check for $3,000 when members learned of the situation.
“This is what the Rotary does,” said Rotarian Robert Picard. “This is the kind of project they embrace, both locally and nationally.”
Kathy Jellison, director of development for Mt. St. Rita, said the money will be enough to continue providing the weekend backpacks to the children for the rest of the school year. But Jellison said Mt. St. Rita is committed to making Blessings in a Backpack a new fundraising tradition, so the hunt for more charitable contributions to keep the program alive goes on.
“We don’t want to be a one-year wonder,” said Jellison. “We continue to need contributions so we never let any of our kids down.”
Blessings in a Backpack is the brainchild of Stan Curtis, who launched the program with just two schools in Kentucky in 2005. It all began when teachers noticed that children were coming to school on Mondays hangdog and sluggish because they were going hungry on weekends.
The program now reaches 318 schools in 37 states and three countries. In Rhode Island, said Reis, only one other city – Providence – has a school that’s been adopted by Blessings in a Backpack, and that program’s chief sponsor is homegrown golf pro Brad Faxon.
Mt. St. Rita has an arrangement to buy discounted food from Wal-Mart. Thanks to the Bentonville, Ark., retail giant, Reis says, a donation of $80 is enough to feed a child on the weekends for an entire school year.

ON A RECENT Wednesday, the old-and-young mix of volunteers was busily filling backpacks with microwavable popcorn, toaster pastries, canned tuna, single-serve cartons of juice and other goodies, working assembly-line style in a dormitory-size room that was once a chaplain’s residence at Mt. St. Rita. Normally, the backpacks are filled on Thursdays, but the schedule was moved up a day for Christmas.
Every Friday, the backpacks are loaded onto a truck and delivered to the school. The children take them home and return them to school the following Monday. Later, the backpacks are picked up and returned to Mt. St. Rita, where the volunteers clean them out every Tuesday in preparation for another round of deliveries.
It may come as a surprise to some that there is such an acute need for food among inner-city children, but Reis says there’s little doubt it’s there. A related problem: Even if there is food in the house, parents aren’t always available to prepare it, she says. The third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders targeted by the program aren’t kitchen-savvy enough to prepare healthful meals, so Blessings in a Backpack strives to supply them with foods that are either ready to eat or simple to prepare.
“Parents work on the weekends,” says Reis. “They leave kids home alone. Even if there is food in the house it’s not always something they can prepare on their own.”
And so Blessings in a Backpack fills a gap in the support network that’s normally designed to combat hunger.
But at Mt. St. Rita, it does so much more.
“The program is an excellent reminder for all that just because people get older and may have some challenges they can continue to be contributing members of the society in which we live,” says Stephanie Igoe, administrator of Mt. St. Rita. “This project is a WIN-WIN-WIN for everyone involved.”

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