PBL Backpack Program gets school board's nod of approval

PAXTON —  The Paxton-Buckley-Loda school board last Wednesday voted unanimously to create the PBL Backpack program, which will provide needy children at Clara Peterson Elementary School with food to take home twice a month.

Principal Amanda Wetherell and guidance counselor Stacy Johnson updated the board on their months of work to get the program off the ground. The program will be piloted this April and May at Clara Peterson, with the hope that it eventually can be expanded to include students at PBL Eastlawn School, as well, once Clara Peterson and Eastlawn merge into one school in a few years.

“We’re starting out with our little ones (at Clara Peterson), but we are hoping that this can grow, especially when our buildings come together and it’s a K-5 building,” Wetherell said. “I would love to see this grow to all of the elementary, but at least we can start small and support families now however we can.”

Wetherell said the food for the program will be supplied by the Midwest Food Bank, based in Bloomington, assuming that food bank accepts PBL’s application for assistance.

“We do not think we’ll have any problems getting food from them,” Wetherell said. “This is what they do; they run backpack programs for other schools.”

Wetherell said one thing the school district still needs to “iron out” is determining how the food will be transported from Bloomington to Paxton in preparation for distribution, but she noted that churches and other community groups have already volunteered to help.

Wetherell also noted that, through donations, enough food has already been made available to continue the program in the fall. Donations have already come from Gibson Area Hospital & Health Services ($5,000), First National Bank of Paxton ($800), Pro-Type Printing in Paxton ($500), Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet ($250), Bull’s Custom Shop of Paxton ($100), Loda United Methodist Church ($100) and a man named John Smith ($30). The Ford County Public Health Department is also collecting donations of food to be donated toward the program.

“We’ve had many, many donations — from churches, from all of the PBL communities,” Wetherell said. “The support has been overwhelming.”

Wetherell said her goal is to help 30 to 40 kids at Clara Peterson through the program. They would receive food on two Fridays in April and two Fridays in May while the program is being piloted.

“Right now, we’re just targeting our students who receive free lunch at Clara Peterson, and right now I have about 30 such students,” Wetherell said.

Wetherell said that while the program is being piloted, only one bag of food will be given to a single household. That means that for families that have multiple children at the school, the eldest child would be the one receiving the food to bring home.

Once “the kinks (in the program) are ironed out” this spring and the Midwest Food Bank accepts PBL’s application for assistance, the plan is to expand the PBL Backpack Program to not just students who receive free lunch but also those who receive reduced-price lunch at Clara Peterson, Wetherell said.

Wetherell said there are 53 families who receive either free or reduced-price lunch currently.

“There’s definitely a need,” she said.

The Midwest Food Bank is willing to provide food for up to 100 families per week, Wetherell said. Whether that means PBL would provide food to 100 families per week or 200 every two weeks remains to be decided. Wetherell said she still needs to determine how many families would like to participate.

“Our next move is to get letters sent home to families to see who would be willing to participate,” Wetherell said. “And then our committee would put bags together and then our plan is to deliver our first set of bags on April 13.”

Wetherell said PBL Eastlawn School Principal Barry Wright has offered to allow his school to be used for the storage of food for the program. The school district would be responsible for bagging the food prior to distribution, but Wetherell said that would not be a problem.

“We’re hoping to make this a school district effort, a community effort,” Wetherell said.

Wetherell said that PBL High School’s newly created GIVE club has offered to help with the bagging, as well as other aspects of the program.

“They are so excited; they are doing a food drive at the high school, and they want to actually pack the first month of backpack bags, so we’re letting them,” Wetherell said, adding that she hopes other student groups get involved, as well.

Some school board members wondered why a local food pantry or other nonprofit 501(c)3 organization is not the entity operating the proposed program. With PBL operating the program, donations are not yet tax-deductible.

Johnson said getting the program piloted in such a short amount of time made it difficult to  coordinate.

“We’re still hopeful that will still happen,” Johnson said.

In the meantime, people who want to donate toward the program can do so through their churches, for example, which could then turn over the donation to the district so the donation would be tax-deductible.

Any donations to the program would be placed into a newly created activity account for the program.

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