Jeni Ward & Backpack Buddies
- by Pat Saik
Jeni Ward is the organizational wizard who oversees a program aimed at reducing hunger for at-risk kids during the weekends when school is in session.
As program leader (her official title) Jeni and several other dedicated members of the First Baptist Church on Main Street participate in a national program called Backpack Buddies.
The First Baptist Church has been participating in the program since September 2015. As the first program leader, Jeni immersed herself in learning about hunger in Hancock County and how to help to alleviate hunger for children. Jeni credits a former pastor of the church and his wife, Owen and Amanda Nease, for implementing Backpack Buddies in Hancock County.
While every child who attends school is provided a meal, there are children living in economically disadvantaged homes that are “food insecure.” “The term simply means that the child does not have enough to eat,” explains Jeni.
The US Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of access at times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.
“When a child isn’t hungry, her grades often improve, she is in better health, school attendance improves. So does the child’s self-esteem,” comments Jeni.
While the program works because of a host of churchgoing volunteers, the idea is simple. Volunteers purchase, pack, and distribute food that is nutritious and easy to prepare. Distribution at each school is then facilitated by the school counselor, who discreetly distributes food to each child enrolled in the program.
Teachers and school counselors involved in distributing the food at each school make an effort to maintain the privacy of each child who receives it. Most often the child is called to the counselor’s office, where the counselor helps the child pack the food in his or her own backpack.
Touching stories happen often. One child didn’t understand that all of the food she was given was for her alone. When she returned to her classroom, she began to distribute what she had among her classmates.
Another child in the counselor’s office saw all the food spread out ready to go into his backpack. The child took only one item, not understanding that all of it was for him. “He was elated,” Jeni remembers, “when he learned he didn’t have to choose. It all was meant for him.”
The church aims, Jeni says, to enlarge the program over time so that Hancock County’s other two elementary schools, East Hancock and West Hancock, also may be included.
Should you know of a child interested in the program, Jeni recommends calling the school counselor. It is the counselor who determines if the child is in need of participation, using a set of criteria to spotlight children who likely receive inadequate meals over the weekend. Parents must sign a consent form for their child to participate.
People in the community who may be moved to help out may visit the website to learn ways to assist. One can help by donating time to help with buying, packing, or delivering. Monetary donations used to buy the food also are welcome.
The bag of food each child receives contain two Chef Boyardee meals, a microwave mac and cheese, an instant oatmeal pack, a granola bar, an applesauce cup, a fruit cup, a vegetable cup, a pack of peanut butter crackers, a pretzel pack, a peanut pack and one 100% juice box.
As Jeni explains, the group strives to deliver healthy foods that do not contain sugar and do not need to be refrigerated. The selection is designed to be easily prepared so that the child or an older sibling may fix it themselves.
One beauty of the backpack program is its simplicity. Anyone committed to alleviating hunger among youngsters may start one, as a student attending Pass Christian High School did. Set-up help is available from ongoing and more experienced operations.
Jeni, for example, turned to a backpack program sponsored by a Baptist church in New Orleans for guidance when setting up the program at First Baptist in Bay St. Louis.
Committed to their mission, Jeni and the many volunteers who help her are inspired by their Christian faith to help those in need in the community. Jeni calls it “the work of the heart.” Jeni continues: “Isaiah 58:7 tells Christians to share our food with the hungry and give shelter to the homeless. This is why we do what we do.”
Monetary support is always welcomed, as are food items, which may be dropped off at the church office from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Other churches and community businesses form part of the support group, often holding fundraisers to support the program.
Jeni, born in Metairie, came to live with her grandmother in Bay St. Louis as a child. She has lived here ever since. She grew up in Lakeshore, “where everybody knew everybody. You waved at everyone you passed, “ Jeni recalls. “Not to mention that you couldn’t do anything without your family finding out. If it was something at school, your elders always believed the teacher. You had no say whatsoever.”
Jeni still lives in Lakeshore with her husband Mart, a builder, and their two sons, Tyler and Ethan. Their home sits on a 40-acre parcel that has been in her husband’s family for six generations.
“Hancock County is the place for me,” Jeni says. “I love it here.” MoJo, the family’s miniature terrier/schnauzer mix, heartily barks in agreement.