The office space was buzzing with activity as I walked into BackPack Beginnings (BPB) on Alliance Drive. Justin McCollum’s 3rd graders were starting their first service learning field trip of the school year. Boxes were cut open. Food items checked and put in plastic bags. Everything was counted, repacked, and stacked, all the while children’s voices echoed down the hallways.
The students stated their purpose clearly: “We are packing food for kids who do not have enough on the weekends.” And they learned the ropes quickly. “Pack two juices, two proteins. Nothing smushed.”
They also got the point. “This is fun,” a child said. “I feel like I am helping someone!”
Canterbury’s 3rd graders head out to the BackPack Beginnings distribution center once a trimester to perform many different duties. Packing up food bags. Sorting books, clothing, or school supplies. Checking donated food for damage before going out for delivery.
An organization run entirely by volunteers, BackPack Beginnings provides local children in need with nutritious food, comfort items, or basic necessities. Canterbury supports the mission not only through 3rd grade service learning time, but also through food deliveries conducted by the Canterbury Parents Association.
This year, the CPA volunteers are led by Julie Pyrtle (Emma, Kindergarten and Fenton, Pre-K). Every Thursday, a pair of volunteers picks up the prepared food bags from the distribution center, checks though their school list for any food allergies, and then delivers the food packs to Poplar Grove Head Start on Summit Avenue. According to Julie, the last delivery served 44 children at the school.
Parker White is the founder of BackPack Beginnings. A mother of two, Parker began the organization in January 2010, initially feeding 50 children in one school. Utilizing Feeding America’s national BackPack Program and partnering with Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC, BPB partners with Guilford County Title 1 schools and Head Start agencies to identify children in need of food on weekends. Now, BPB has expanded to include three programs beyond the food backpacks (comfort backpacks, food pantries, and a clothing pantry). This fall, the organization will feed more than 1,300 children in 26 schools.
The need in Guilford County may shock you. More than 43,000 children (58 percent) in Guilford County schools are at risk of going hungry each week. Just five dollars can feed a hungry child for the weekend.
BackPack Beginnings is the story of how Parker, one person, took the first step to make a huge impact in the lives of many helpless children. Recently, she answered a few questions for me:
What keeps you going? You are a mom of two and this is a big undertaking; do you ever feel like you are in survival mode and just can’t fit it all in?
Absolutely. I feel overwhelmed all the time and only get to about 60 percent of my daily BPB goals each day. When I started this, I planned to devoted a few hours a week. But it is now 40-50 hours a week. However, we have found ten amazing core volunteer “staff,” 150 food delivery volunteers, and 50-100 office volunteers. Without them and our supporters, it would not be possible. What keeps me going is their support and the thought of the many helpless children in Guilford County who are in need of food, clothing, comfort, and more. When I get stressed, all I need to do is read some of the feedback from the children we serve and I get that motivation again.
How did you come up with this idea of backpacks?
When living in Washington D.C., I had heard of food backpack programs and that it was such a wonderful idea. When I moved to Greensboro, I couldn’t get that idea out of my head. And, once I saw that this organization was really taking off, I knew that I wanted it to be more than food. I wanted to create other backpack programs that helped all subsets of children in need.
Do you feel like this is your purpose or calling in life?
Definitely. Looking back on it all, I feel like God had this plan for me, and it was the reason I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I believe this is what I was meant to do with my life. Only God could have made it grow so quickly, provided the right people at the right time, etc. I could not have done this on my own.
What’s your advice to someone who has an idea to help or start something new, but just can’t seem to figure out where to start?
Some advice: Do your research and talk to as many people as you can. If you are passionate about something, make yourself knowledgeable about that field and how you can play a role in it. Collaborate with others. Not many people excel when isolating themselves from others who are doing similar things. And believe in yourself when others may not. We were told that a group of stay-at-home-moms couldn’t pull off a 100 percent volunteer nonprofit, but that only lit a fire under us. Push back against the naysayers if you believe this is what you are meant to do.
What’s next for BackPack Beginnings?
BPB is continuing to find ways to grow all four of its programs and our next step, in order to do that, is to find new office space. We have been blessed with 3,300 square feet of donated space, but we have quickly outgrown it and hope to move this summer. A move to a larger space, although it may be costly, will allow us to expand to serve more children.
TO STAY IN TOUCH WITH THE LATEST NEWS, NEEDS, AND VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES, LIKE BACKPACK BEGINNINGS ON FACEBOOK: www.facebook.com/BackPackBeginnings
by Katie Hu
Katie Hu is the parent of Brady (4th-Hoover), Maggie (2nd-McIlwain) and Mason (2025). Her favorite part of Canterbury is the chapel and the teachers. She loves a quiet walk in the woods, yoga, and a tall glass of kale afterwards.