Record Staff Writer
Would you give $7 so a Warren County child doesn’t go hungry during the holidays?
Cheryl Portillo and Marilyn Carter need your answer to be “yes.”
The pair co-directs Operation Backpack in the Warren County R-III School District. This is their third year coordinating the effort to feed school children who may not have enough food at home, or anyone to fix it for them, on weekends.
Operation Backpack does not receive federal funds or grants. It relies solely on food and monetary donations from the community. Portillo and Carter want Warren County residents to know the need for both continues to grow because the program has doubled in size since August.
“We started this school year feeding 70 children. We now have 144, and know we’ll hit 150 or more,” Carter said. “As fast as we get food it goes out.”
All of the children who receive help through the program may not be from low income families, and they may not need assistance all through the year. They may need temporary help due to a parent’s job layoff or a costly health issue no one anticipated.
Operation Backpack distributes about 1,700 food items each week during the school year, or 12 items per child. This includes enough for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. They are things children can fix themselves. If Carter and Portillo have juice boxes, they distribute those as well. If not, they distribute water.
“Some people have asked us why we include drinks. We know a lot of these children don’t have water in their homes,” Carter said. “You know that’s a fact in their lives.”
Preschool children through high school students are referred to Operation Backpack by teachers and counselors.
“They are truly the first ones who can see what the need is,” Portillo said. Recipients’ names are confidential.
The program costs about $7 per week for each child.
“That’s a little more than $1,000 per week for the whole program. That goes fast,” Carter said.
While the need exists every week, it is especially acute during extended school breaks.
Christmas break begins Dec. 19 and ends Jan. 3 for R-III students. It includes two weekends program recipients may not have access to food normally available during school days. Operation Backpack won’t supply students food again until Jan. 5. Portillo and Carter do the best they can to make up for the gap.
“We try to pack larger amounts of food for extended breaks. A 48-ounce jar of peanut butter, bigger things to tide them over,” Carter said.
The same is done for Thanksgiving break and spring break. Operation Backpack is not needed during the summer because eligible students have access to the federal free and reduced lunch program through their schools.
The pair keeps an eye on the weather. They typically pack food for the kids on Thursdays, but will adjust the schedule if bad weather approaches.
“When we know the weather will be really harsh, we always try to pack whatever extra we can. We’re cognizant of what’s ahead. We’re trying to plan for January and February,” Portillo said.
The pair is grateful to area businesses such as the Hapkido Plus, the Metso Group, Gastorf Chevrolet and Scott’s Miracle-Gro that have consistently donated to the program. Cub Scout Pack 983 donated all food it collected from its recent Scouting for Food event to Operation Backpack. There are seven or eight area churches that take turns donating macaroni and cheese and fruit cups.
Operation Backpack is currently in need of food and money. Carter and Portillo will pick up food and donations, or they can be dropped off at the Warren County R-III Central Office at 385 Veterans Memorial Drive in Warrenton. Any food the pair can’t use is given to Agape Ministry.
Checks can be made payable to Operation Backpack.
Portillo can be reached anytime at 636-456-1086. Carter’s phone number is 636-456-4106.
All monies collected for the program are managed by the non-profit Wise Foundation.
“It handles the money. There is no chance of it not being used for Operation Backpack. It’s truly going to the kids,” Carter said.
Carter and Portillo are not professional fundraisers. They met through a Bible study class. They and their families, including grown children, husbands, teenagers and grandchildren, have adopted the program. It is hard work, they say, but it has become their passion.
“It was the idea of just being able to provide a service in our community. We feel blessed and thankful to be able to do it. We’d be heartbroken if we couldn’t do it anymore,” Carter said.