Saint Francis Outreach’s Food Backpack Program concludes fifth year

DOWAGIAC — A local nonprofit is putting the finishing touches on one of its biggest yearly projects.

Saint Francis Outreach is gearing up for the final day of its Backpack Program on Friday.

Founded in 2015, the organization is in its fifth year of its backpack program, which supplies 180 students in need at Dowagiac Union’s four elementary schools and Dowagiac Middle School with weekend meals every Friday.

“We’re thankful for the great community support,” said SFO Board President David Hannapel. “We are guided by God who watched over us. We feel we have a good connection with counselors and principals, who let us know what the needs are. That need grew over the course of the pandemic. We wanted to dive in this year and make sure we could keep this going.”

The program begins the first week of October and continues until the last week of school. It has grown over the course of its existence, from 25 bags the first year to the 180 it distributes now. Each bag consists of two breakfast, lunch and dinner meals per bag and items including cereal, soups, juice and fresh fruits and vegetables.

The four elementary schools and the middle school receive 35 backpacks each, with staff from each school deciding which students are most in need.

Volunteers from Dowagiac Family Dentistry, Sister Lakes Community Church, Pokagon Methodist Church, Holy Maternity of Mary and Dowagiac Elks Lodge No. 889 help pack and transport the bags.

Composed of members of Dowagiac’s Holy Maternity of Mary and Silver Creek Township’s Sacred Heart of Mary, SFO members volunteer their time and energy to a number of causes, including donating to local food pantries and organizing clothing drives in the spring and winter.

Hannapel said the program could not have survived without the support of area businesses and organizations. SFO has received $10,000 per year from the Pokagon Fund since 2017 and has also received donations from Lyons Industries, Pokagon Methodist Church, Sister Lakes Community Church, Dowagiac Family Dentistry and more.

“Both the town and our church family have really supported us every step of the way,” Hannapel said. With the schools being shut down at different points of this year, we worked with counselors to have food available for kids on weekends. The need didn’t go away. We wanted to make sure we could still be a resource for the families.”

As the school year comes to a close, Hannapel hopes the Backpack Program will continue to meet the needs of the community going forward.

“We really hope to expand,” he said. “We feel there is more of a need in the community. If that’s in God’s plan, we’ll expand it and help as many kids as we can.”

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