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High school girl organizes community to feed hungry kids

by: Jim Clark Caitlin Morrison loads up a bag of food that will go to a child at Oliver Elementary School.

Sixteen-year-old Caitlin Morrison spends her Thursday evenings at Oliver Elementary School, thoughtfully packing bags with a proportionate number of proteins, sides and snacks to ensure the offering is sufficient for recipients to curb hunger over the coming weekend.

On Friday afternoons, those bags go to 20 low-income students who depend on schools' free and reduced lunches and after-school programs that provide dinner.

Without the bag of food for the weekend, those students may not eat again until school breakfast Monday morning.

'I don't want to think about anybody going hungry, but especially a kid not having food on a long weekend,' said Morrison, a Franklin High School sophomore. 'Kids are put in these situations where they can't do anything about it. It makes you feel worse about them being in that situation.'

Morrison, moved by a story she read about a Beaverton church filling backpacks with food to give to kids, started her own iteration of the project, the Rosewood Backpack Project.

The name is inaccurate - it just kind of stuck, Morrison said - but the purpose is clear: Before each weekend, 20 first- through fifth-graders take home a paper bag filled with healthy food for their families to eat through the weekend.

While she's looking for more organizations to sustain and expand the project, Morrison has organized a unique opportunity for schools to fill a gap in their support for poor students, said Oliver Elementary Principal Ben Egbers.

'A number of our students come here for breakfast and lunch and stay and participate in our after-school program, which includes a snack and dinner,' Egbers said. 'So when it comes to the weekend, there are a lot of weekends where food isn't being provided.'

Rosewood

Morrison's father, Thompson, suggested she reach out to the Rockwood-area schools; he serves on the board of directors for the Rosewood Initiative, an effort to revive the community in a high-poverty, high-crime area of West Gresham and East Portland.

Oliver and Parklane elementary schools serve high-poverty populations. Nearly 83 percent of Oliver's students are on free and reduced lunches - the highest percentage in the Centennial School District's elementary schools, Egbers said.

The schools' SUN Community Schools (Schools Uniting Neighborhoods) AmeriCorps members worked with Morrison to recruit donations from churches with food pantries.

For a little more than a month now, 10 students each at Oliver and Parklane, identified by counselors as high-need, every weekend have taken home a Trader Joe's bag of food - soup, tuna, peanut butter, crackers, granola bars, fresh fruit and Dave's Killer Bread.

'This gives them some stability,' Egbers said. 'A lot of these families don't know about bills, about rent. This is something they can count on every week. It's nice for families to have that.'

Likewise, Darrin Swaim, program coordinator for the SUN Community Schools program at Parklane, said his students are excited about their bags, filled to feed four or five people.

'The response has been fantastic,' Swaim said. 'Students … when they come to pick up food packages are very excited to take them home; they're very appreciative.'

Logistically, the Rosewood Backpack Project has enough food for the remaining school year, but to sustain the weekly bags through next school year, they need more donors, Swaim said.

Community support

In front of a packed Rosewood Initiative community meeting, AmeriCorps members Lucy Adams and Kyle Curtis said the project was going strong, with churches and the Portland Police Bureau's Sunshine Division providing donated food.

But they asked organizations and businesses there to consider sponsoring a week to relieve the smaller food pantries.

Instead of one-time donations, Morrison is having organizations sponsor the same week every month to donate.

'That way it can be self-sustaining,' she said, adding that the more sponsorships she has, the more students and schools can benefit.

'I'd love to expand the program,' Egbers said. 'But if we reach out to families, we want to be consistent and provide what it is we said we can.'

So for the remainder of the school year, the Rosewood Backpack Project will keep its 20 students from going hungry over the weekend.

Morrison still hasn't met the kids, but she said knowing they're fed is gratification enough.



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