Over 900 Grays Harbor County students are homeless, according to the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. These are children who do not have a permanent address, are living in shelters or couch surf from home to home. When school is in session, many of these children receive meals at school. However, on the weekend, they must fend for themselves.
Enter the Grays Harbor Teen Homeless Backpack. This non-profit organization is dedicated to providing homeless and misplaced students throughout Grays Harbor with backpacks of food each weekend.
How It All Started
The organization was brought to Grays Harbor by sisters Tammy Walker and Kim Heck. Walker explains that their friends had started a Homeless Backpack program for students in Thurston County where she and her sister volunteered. Before long, the sisters began contemplating bringing the program to their hometown.
In 2009, they launched a pilot program. “We knew people at the schools in McCleary and Elma and reached out to them,” Walker stated. “We started out helping just four kids and by the end of the year we were pushing 40 kids.” Walker explains that the program “took off like wildfire,” prompting them to expand their efforts to neighboring Aberdeen and Montesano.
They began searching for volunteers, board members and local supporters to help raise funds. As word of the organization began to spread, community members stepped up in a huge way to lend support. In 2011, the Leadership of Greater Grays Harbor adopted the Grays Harbor Teen Homeless Backpack as their charity of the year and helped officially launch the organization, which then became an official nonprofit organization.
Providing Hope and Support
Each year, Grays Harbor Teen Homeless Backpack has expanded the number of students they serve. “It was so heartwarming to know this program was needed, but very heart wrenching at the same time,” Walker said. “It breaks my heart to see the kids struggling.” However, knowing they are helping students succeed is something Walker and her sister find rewarding. “When we go to bed at night we feel good about what we are doing,” she said.
Currently, the Grays Harbor Teen Homeless Backpack program provides 1,380 meals weekly to students in the Elma, Montesano, McCleary, Hoquiam and Aberdeen school districts. New students are constantly being added to this list, as more and more schools are expressing interest in the program. This includes schools in Westport, Grayland and Taholah.
Volunteers fill backpacks weekly and then deliver them to the schools where students can pick them up. Each backpack includes six meals for the weekend. During holidays or extended vacations, the organization tries to include extra food or gift cards to Subway or McDonalds to help kids make it through those additional days away from school. Meals may include boxes of macaroni and cheese, cans of soup, chips, granola bars, tuna, popcorn, oatmeal, cookies and a few candy bars. Three beverages are also provided consisting of milk, juice or water. “We try to provide as much of a balanced diet as possible while avoiding perishable foods,” Walker explained.
Creating a Safe Environment
Maintaining privacy and confidentiality is a key component of Grays Harbor Teen Homeless Backpack. The program is structured in such a way that a teen’s identity is never disclosed to the organization unless they want it to be. School counselors qualify students to receive assistance and then communicate with the program’s coordinators. When backpacks are delivered to the school, teens can pick them up before or after classes from a counselor or school nurse. “We wanted to make it feel safe so kids would be comfortable asking for help,” Walker said.
A Community-Owned Organization
Grays Harbor Teen Homeless Backpack consists of 8 board members and over 20 volunteers. “We don’t have any paid staff,” Walker noted. “Everyone is a volunteer and that’s how we know we have the right people. They are here because they want to be.”
Since the start of the organization, residents and businesses around Grays Harbor have been overwhelmingly supportive. “Even though Grays Harbor County struggles economically, we have some of the most giving people,” Walker said. “They may not have a lot themselves, but they have so much to give.” At present, Grays Harbor Teen Homeless Backpack is supported entirely by the generous donations of the community, with no government or grant funding.
The organization conducts food drives at local grocery stores and hosts fundraisers in the community, such as their annual Humptoberfest concert. Many local businesses are huge supporters including Aberdeen Honda. Employees at the Vaughn Company in Montesano and the Elma UPS Customer Center support the organization through voluntary payroll deductions. The Girl Scouts of McCleary frequently donate money raised through their cookie sales. Local banks host fundraisers and issue challenges to other branches to raise funds. “It is very much a community-owned organization,” Walker stated proudly.
Get Involved: Make a Difference, Touch a Life
If you are interested in supporting this wonderful organization, there are many ways you can jump in and help. Volunteers are needed to come to the warehouse and help fill backpacks or go shopping. You can also sponsor a backpack for $8 a weekend; $32 a month or $96 a quarter. If you are a part of a local business or organization, invite the Grays Harbor Teen Homeless Backpack to make a presentation to your group to help spread the word.