Inspiring Okeechobee: Backpack program ends hunger, one student at a time

OKEECHOBEE — High school senior, Artha Jonassaint and a cadre of 50 other high school students are inspiring.

Artha said the following, “The backpack program has given me a voice; it has given me a platform. I have been able to make a substantial change as a high schooler. I have found what sets my soul on fire and it’s food insecurity.”

The Okeechobee High School National Honor Society (NHS) set out on a mission to end child hunger in our schools a number of years ago. To date this program has fed thousands of our children who would otherwise go without — all because a group of teenagers wanted to make a difference. This year’s group of kids is carrying on that tradition.

(Left, front) Daniela Caballero-Trejo, (back) Jacqueline Anton, (right, front) Christina Vega, and (back) Teresa Ruiz sort food for the backpack program.

NHS student Yesenia Castillo reported, “The backpack program has impacted my life greatly. Not only has it changed the way I see things, but it has made me appreciate the little things that we often take for granted!”

Honor student Mariah Wooten further explained, “It feels so great to help the kids! We get to see them every week, talk to them, and watch them grow over the course of the year all because of the NHS Backpack Program!”

Elementary school years are paramount for proper childhood development and adequate nutrition increases the likelihood of participation in classroom activities. With a poverty rate of 39 percent for children ages 6-17 in Okeechobee, attempting to mitigate the effects of food insecurity for the youth is quite a weighty task — especially for a group of high school juniors and seniors.

The Okeechobee High School Chapter of the National Honor Society’s End the Hunger backpack program accommodates elementary school children in Okeechobee County who have been identified as needing extra food over weekends. Approximately 30 kids who have been selected from the five elementary schools within the school district receive six meals every weekend from August to May.

The 50 members of NHS are responsible for unloading delivery trucks, packing bags of foods, keeping an inventory of food items, and coordinating deliveries to the five elementary schools on a weekly basis. The number of boxes opened, the number of miles driven, the hours spent packing, and the gallons of gas used are immeasurable. The teamwork required to execute these tasks on a week-to-week basis is tremendous. Each member plays an integral role in the program.

(Left to right) Sara Garcia, Delaenam Akahoho and Artha Jonassaint get ready to load backpacks with meals for low income elementary school students to take home so they will have food to eat over the weekend.

In the past, this program has accommodated up to 155 students county-wide, but due to the depletion of funds and the expiration of a grant, they can only sustain 30 students at this time. At its full scale, the backpack operation costs approximately $21,000. To put it in perspective, a child could be fed every weekend throughout the school year for about $250. This small amount of money, could be the difference between a passing and failing score on an assessment; but it could be a child’s saving grace.

NHS student Sonia Delgado-Guiterres noted, “The program has allowed me to see the small things I can do to create a big impact on others who need it most.”

Several fundraisers have been planned to assist the young people in feeding the children in the coming weeks, with the support of Our Village Okeechobee. Local businesses have agreed to be drop off sites for food, as an initiative to ensure local school children have adequate food during Spring Break at the end of March. You can drop off food at the following locations:

• Green Design, 502 N.W. Second St.;
• Sears, 704 N. Parrott Ave.;
• The Lounge at Sacred Sanctuary, 207 S.W. Second Ave.;
• Okeechobee High School, 2800 U.S. 441 N.

If you wish to donate money, checks made out to OHS (End the Hunger in the memo section) can be dropped off at OHS or mailed to 2800 U.S. 441 N.

Additionally, the Methodist Church of Okeechobee as part of its community outreach, will host a dine-in or take-out spaghetti dinner cooked by the United Methodist Men on Saturday, April 7, from 4 – 7 p.m. Tickets can be obtained from NHS members or by calling Leah Suarez at 863-697-8718.

Our Village is also hosting a vacation drawing. They will sell 150 tickets at $100 each, for a chance to win a week’s stay in North Carolina. This is a great family vacation and you can split the cost of a ticket with family and friends! You are able to elect where part of your donation goes, with the End the Hunger project being one of the sponsored projects.

Finally, Okeechobee NHS will be host the inaugural End the Hunger 5K Glow Run on April 27, from 7 to 10 p.m. at Okeechobee High School. On top of rigorous course loads and other extracurricular activities, the advisor and members of NHS are meticulously planning a night full of fun for our community so the NHS Chapter can give back to the community.

A 5K Walk/Run, food, games, booths and a DJ are planned to ensure a night of family fun. The goal is to raise enough money to expand the program in the coming years, to combat childhood food insecurity in the community of Okeechobee.

The NHS chapter is seeking sponsors for the run to set up booths around the high school during the run. Sponsorships start at $50. Pre-Registration will be through Eventbrite until April 10: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/end-the-hunger-glow-run-tickets-43276907395?aff=efbeventtix.

Pre-registering for the run secures participants a tee shirt and “glow wear.” For more information regarding sponsorships and pre-registration, contact NHS advisor Mrs. Wendy Reister at reisterw@okee.k12.fl.us.

Senior Nickolas Montero said, “Overall, I would say that the backpack program has helped to instill in me an important sense of responsibility for something more than myself.”

While senior, Merydian Causier added, “The backpack program has impacted me in ways that I can’t quite explain. Packing with the most humble people of the high school and those who truly want to make a change in our community is such a blessing and rewarding opportunity. Then delivering the food to the children that most deserve it is so humbling. Their faces light up like the Rockefeller Christmas tree and it absolutely melts my heart every-time.” Let us come together as a community to better the lives of our own children. There is nothing more rewarding than doing the right thing. Fifty high school students have answered the call to serve, are you ready too?

Artha Jonassaint contributed to this article.

Leah Suarez is a freelance writer.

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