Every time I drive into my hometown of Effingham, Illinois the John Mellancamp classic “Small Town” starts rolling through my head. Yes John, I too was born in a small town, and, yes, my parents also live in that same small town.
Although, small is a relative term really. When I was growing up there, Effingham’s population of 9,000 residents didn’t feel small to me at all. It was the big city in this area of rural Illinois and it had everything we needed, from the Homewood Grill for ice cream on summer nights to the Ramada Inn Convention Center where I worked as a server on the weekends. Now as an adult, every time I go back to Effingham for a visit I see another store, restaurant or hotel that’s recently gone up. Another road has been expanded. A new school has been built to replace an old one. Effingham even has a Starbucks now! With the city limit sign now reading a population of over 12,000, my hometown has definitely grown over the years.
Effingham has expanded philanthropically as well. One of the best things about life in a small town is the ability of citizens to get involved and make big changes to their community. Bureaucracy doesn’t slow things down like it can in large metropolitan areas. When a caring, motivated resident sees an issue that needs to be addressed, he or she has the power to solve it. That’s how Blessings in a Backpack came to Effingham, and the caring, motivated resident who made it happen was a high school friend of mine.
Jamie Waldhoff, formerly known to me during our days at Effingham High School as “Jame”, had recently moved back to our hometown with her family when she learned about a struggling program trying to send food home with children living in poverty. Without adequate funding and structure in place, the small service was limited in its ability to adequately serve the growing number of students going hungry when school meals weren’t available to them. Jamie was working to help solve the problems the program faced when one day she opened up a People magazine and found the answer. Expecting to read about the lives of celebrities in Hollywood, Jamie instead saw an opportunity to change the lives of children in Effingham. Passing by the break-up stories and photos of glamorous-looking actors, she focused her attention on an article featuring Blessings in a Backpack, a national organization bringing hope to those who are hungry.
Based in Louisville, KY, Blessings in a Backpack mobilizes communities to provide food to elementary school students who might otherwise have very little to eat over the weekend. This mission addresses one of the most important yet often overlooked truths in our society’s education system: the ability to learn isn’t just about what happens in the classroom. When children are malnourished and unhealthy they can’t take full advantage of the educational resources being offered to them. We have to put some focus on health and wellness in order for education to be successful in ending the cycle of poverty.
After learning about Blessings in a Backpack, Jamie quickly contacted the organization, gathered more supporters toward the cause and before long the local school board had passed a resolution to give the new Effingham chapter of Blessings in a Backpack access to the district’s elementary school classrooms. For the past three years Jamie and her team have been collaborating with teachers to identify students in need and get weekend food into their backpacks. Local businesses, such as Martins IGA, serve as partners by providing food at cost, getting food boxes out to schools and offering volunteers for the bi-weekly packing sessions.
My family got the chance to help at one of these packing sessions. While Blessing in a Backpack typically uses monetary donations to order large, low-cost quantities of food, occasionally the organization will get a donation of canned goods from an event or food drive. Our three daughters, my mom and I showed up one morning to help Jamie and her fellow Blessings in a Backpack leaders with sorting and boxing. The girls were little speed demons as they inventoried cans, checked expiration dates and packed boxes for distribution. In less than 2 hours we’d made it through 20 boxes containing almost 2100 cans of food for local students.
My small hometown has some big-hearted people making enormous changes in the community. Jamie and the rest of the team at Effingham’s Blessings in a Backpack work tirelessly to improve the lives of children they’ve never met. This kind of “small town mentality” is a perspective we all need to have – see a problem, find an answer, get some support and make it happen.