Alton Attorney Partners with Elementary School to Feed Low-Income Children
By SARAH PATSAROS
When teachers see Sarah Burns walking down the hallway at an elementary school in the Alton School District, they recognize her as the person who organizes the district’s Blessings in a Backpack program. Since school started in August, Burns has coordinated the shopping, delivery and packing of food for approximately 200 low-income students to take home with them each weekend.
Burns, an attorney at the Simmons Law Firm, is quick to point to the help she receives from the Simmons Employee Foundation and the volunteers who help pack the bags on the first Thursday of the month.
By herself, she said, it takes 45 minutes to pack 25 bags. On Jan. 23, about 15 volunteers packed 1,200 bags, organized them into boxes by week, and loaded them into the storage room for the teachers to distribute each Friday for the rest of February in that same 45 minute time span.
"I couldn't do it without the volunteers," Burns said. "A lot of people put forth a little bit of time and it makes a big difference."
Simmons Shareholder Amy Garrett tells a different story. Garrett was SEF president when Burns proposed Blessings in a Backpack as the charity for the foundation’s 2013 Golf Tournament. She credits the program’s success to Burns’ dedication.
"Everyone knows that Blessings in a Backpack program was the recipient of this year's Golf Tournament," said Garrett. "What people don't know is how much work Sarah has done since we awarded them the check to ensure the kids get their food every weekend."
Blessings in a Backpack is a national program that partners with schools to discretely provide weekend meals to 62,000 children nationwide who might otherwise go hungry. Better test scores, improved reading skills, positive behavior, improved health and increased attendance have been attributed to the program. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., lent his support to the program this past September when he helped pack 1,000 bags at a Department of Education event in Washington, D.C., in an effort to bring more attention to food insecurity.
"Sarah is solely responsible for bringing this program here to the Alton School District," Garrett said.
As part of Burns’ responsibilities as program coordinator, she develops a month's worth of weekend menus or more. She picks food items, within a predetermined price range, off of a “menu” compiled by dieticians from Blessings in a Backpack. She must have at least one breakfast item, entrée items and a healthy snack. Then, she strategically shops at local grocery stores in order to find the best prices.
For example, last October, she found Slim Jims – a popular item with the kids – on sale for 18 cents. Previously, she'd bought them for 25 cents. She bought 800 so the kids get a Slim Jim each weekend and saved a total of $56. Considering the bags cost roughly $2 a child, that's significant savings.
Since August, Burns has worked out the logistics of the project. She orders the food ahead of time and volunteers pick it up at local grocery stores and deliver it straight to the school cafeteria where other volunteers are waiting to organize, sort and pack. This happens the first Thursday of every month. They pack bags for the entire month or more, depending on the holidays, at one time.
"Sarah's motivation to help children just like hers has inspired a lot of other people here at the firm," said SEF 2014 President Amy Fair. "Then, being able to pack the bags right there at the school, not only makes the process easier, but it hits home when you see the kids' artwork on the walls and their little tables where they sit during lunch."
Challenges still exist. Fresh produce or fruits can only be included for the first week. Also, more healthy items like a whole-grain cereal in individual packages are hard to find within the $2/bag budget.
The work, Burns said, is worth it. She goes home every weekend and feels better because of what the foundation has helped her do with Blessings in a Backpack.
"I feel like I can relax more on Friday nights because I know those kids have something in their bellies and that's one less thing they have to worry about," she said. "I hope the volunteers and the donors think about that, too."