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Community project feeds kids with the help of backpacks
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Volunteers stuff bags with food for Backpack Buddies Sept. 11at New Life Church. - photo by For the Dawson County News
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Mark Summerhour and Hugh Holley deliver jars of peanut butter donated by the residents of the Chestatee subdivision to Backpack Buddies Sept. 11. - photo by For the Dawson County News

A local community project is helping combat hunger one backpack at a time.

Backpack Buddies, a community driven nonprofit, began in Dawson County five years ago with the goal of combating hunger in school-aged children.

Mike Owens, pastor at New Life Church in Dawsonville, was in a church leadership meeting when the idea was brought up about packing backpacks with food and distributing them to children in the community each week.

“The reason it was started was because a lot of kids were coming back to school on Monday hungry,” Owens said.

Each Wednesday during the school year, volunteers come to New Life Church to help stuff backpacks with about six pounds of food, enough food to feed a child through the weekend.

Backpacks are delivered to the schools and where the school counselors distribute them to the children participating in the program.

In its third week of the 2019-20 school year, Owens said Backpack Buddies are filling more than 70 bags.

“If this doubles next week, then that many (backpacks) will go out next week,” Owens said. “If it takes all day to get them ready, then they’ll take all day to get them ready. We’re going to make sure they get fed.”

“We don’t see this need reducing,” said volunteer Hugh Holley. “For a while the program was around 60-65 and that’s what we’ve been working off of, but it’s really grown over the last year.”

Holley has organized a peanut butter and breakfast bar drive in the Chestatee subdivision for the past five years, helping to provide Backpack Buddies with some of the high-priced items most coveted at food banks.

“Everybody wants those at the food banks, so (the) Chestatee group decided that we’re going to step out and provide these expensive items so they can use their other funds for other foods,” Holley said.

During the month of September, Holley campaigns in Chestatee to collect either food or monetary donations to deliver to Backpack Buddies.

“We’re willing to take either of those two, and happy to get it. We just want to get some kids some peanut butter and Pop Tarts,” Holley said. “We want people to give whatever they would like to give and the way they would like to give.”

Last year, Chestatee collected 6,380 jars of peanut butter for the kids in the community, a goal Holley hopes to meet or exceed this year.

“Our goal is to do as well as we did last year and try to provide one jar of peanut butter and/or a box of Pop Tarts for each child each week for 52 weeks,” Holley said.

Holley will be dropping off donated food items until the end of the month.

Backpack Buddies, which operates inside the New Life Church building, is a feeding partner of the Georgia Mountain Food Bank. It receives food items from the food bank that are also packed in the bags.

Items like peanut butter and breakfast bars, like Pop Tarts or Nutri-Grain Bars, are some of the most expensive and sought after food items at food banks, Owens said. By providing them to the children, it frees up the families’ funds to purchase other items at the food bank.

In his first year volunteering with Backpack Buddies, Holley realized how big the problem of hunger is in the community.

“It will surprise you how many people have experienced some hunger,” Holley said.

Most people don’t understand hunger. The closest they come to experiencing hunger is a sudden hunger pain that goes away after eating, not a pain lasting an extending period of time, Holly said.

Owens encouraged the members of the community that “if they’re child is in need, or their grandchild is in need, let the school know, let the school counselor know to get them in the program.”

To donate food items like Breakfast bars, Ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese, or to volunteer to help fill the backpacks, contact Kimberly Owens at nlcdawsonville@gmail.com for more information.