DANVILLE — When Rose Gates learned some children go hungry on weekends, she knew she had to do something.

“It shouldn’t have to be this way in this country,” Gates said.

In 2010, she founded Feed the Children Backpack Program, which fills backpacks with nutritious and easy-to-prepare food for students to take home every weekend throughout the school year. Teachers and social workers identify the children at risk for hunger.

Six years later, the program still is going strong, and now has grown to serve 200 children in seven schools. The independent program runs on donations from individuals, groups, businesses, grants and others. Its 10-member committee meets a couple of times a year.

Sometimes, public and private school children conduct fundraisers to help the program. Donations are always needed, Gates said.

The budget is $15,000, with more than 5,000 backpacks filled from September through May. The backpacks are donated; thus, any monetary donations go directly to food purchases.

Nourished children have better grades, attendance and behavior in school.

About 20 volunteers gather every Friday during the school year at Life Church and fill the bags in an assembly-line fashion.

“I stand here in amazement,” Gates, a retired nurse, said as she watched the activity. “By the time we leave here, we know we’ve done something.”

Gates said she and others have heard stories — some heartbreaking — about how much the program has helped children. One little boy doesn’t let the bag out of his sight when he gets it on Fridays. Another child goes to his father’s for the weekend, and doesn’t know if he’ll get fed.

“I can’t fathom a kindergartener or first-grader not knowing if they’re going to have food,” Gates said. “Every child who needs a bag gets one.”

Sandy Nosler, a longtime volunteer, said she’s heard some wonderful feedback about how much the program has helped children.

“I feel it’s very, very worthwhile,” she said. “Rose is the heart of this program. She really thinks of the children.”

The Rev. Doug Knapp, a pastor at New Life Church, said the church is glad to partner with Gates, adding, “She has a tremendous heart, as we do, for the students. We hope to expand it as the need grows.”

Knapp volunteers every week, when possible, and said, “Where’s there’s a need, that’s where we need to be.”

Referring to the volunteers, he said it’s nice to see people motivated to help.

“There’s nothing they (the kids) can do to pay us back,” he said. “It’s a pure motive (for the volunteers) and a helpful one.”

The volunteers include a good mixture of ages and backgrounds — including 3-year-old Giana, who comes with her parents, Ashley and Stacey Stein.

The volunteers are faithful, Gates said, and enjoy socializing while filling the bags.

“There is a camaraderie among these people,” Gates said. On a recent day, workers with Woodforest National Bank were helping out.

How it began

Gates started Feed the Children in 2008 as a summer lunch program for needy children, with the sack lunches handed out at Trinity School. In 2010, she added the backpack program, and in 2013, she dropped the lunch program because other agencies were offering meals.

The backpack program now serves seven schools: Cannon, Meade Park, Liberty, Edison, Danville Lutheran, South View and North Ridge.

Gates had been a parish nurse at Trinity Lutheran Church, and the program had been using Trinity School, but there wasn’t enough storage space.

In December 2014, someone asked Pastor Archie Neal at Life Church if the program could use the space in its annex.

“They were so generous,” Gates said. “This church is phenomenal.” The church staff moved things around so the backpack program would have more storage room.

“This has been a blessing. God’s been in the middle of this program,” she added.

Shelves are filled with a variety of food, such as pork and beans, soups, macaroni and cheese, juice, puddings, fruit cups, applesauce, macaroni and beef, peanut butter crackers and special treats for the holidays.

Gates shops at various stores to find the best prices. She makes the purchases twice a year, with the biggest shopping trips in September.

She also chooses items that are nutritious, non-perishable and easy to open; some items provide more than one serving. The menu varies from week to week, so children have a variety, with eight to 10 food items in each bag.

If school is closed on a Monday, she includes extra food to cover that day. If school is closed on a Friday, the volunteers gather on Thursday.

How it works

On Fridays, a couple of volunteers take canned or boxed food off the shelves, following a list for that week.

The food is wheeled into another room, where it’s set out on tables; each group of food items is counted and double-counted to make sure no backpack is shorted.

The men and women place the items into backpacks or into double grocery bags for the Cannon School students whose bags were left behind when the school closed suddenly after flood damage. (Those students will receive new backpacks later.)

The backpacks and bags are loaded into boxes marked for specific schools, and volunteers take the food to the schools. Students return the empty backpacks the following week, and a volunteer picks them up on Mondays.

The backpacks are replaced with new ones at the start of the school year. Also, the empty grocery boxes are recycled, and some of the flatter boxers are donated to CARA (Citizens for Animal Rescue and Adoption) to be used as litter boxes.

The program is promoted by posters and cards designed by Mary Ellen Fricke.

As for the future, Knapp said, “It would be nice to work ourselves out of this job.”

Rose added, “As long as we have hungry kids, I want to feed them.”

To help

For a list of eligible food items or to donate money, call Rose Gates at 446-6805. For more information, you also may call Trinity Lutheran Church at 446-4300 or Life Church at 431-0018.

All donations are tax deductible and go directly toward food purchases only.

Volunteers are never turned down, as people are needed to cover for others.

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