We were a little late to our meeting when we pulled into Eagle School Intermediate five after ten on a bright Saturday morning. Standing at the outer circle of the packed gymnasium, we could hear a voice over the loudspeaker, giving updates and announcements to the volunteers. I assumed that the voice belonged to Diana from Community Combined Ministries and motioned to my partner to follow me. The crowd was polite as we weaved through them, but Diana concluded her announcements before we could reach her. Immediately everyone began to work on the Kidz Power Pacs (KPP). We were stuck in the middle, impeding their efficiency.
Sensing that I was a fish out of water, a friendly volunteer helped to point me in the direction of Diana. She was across the gymnasium, clearly answering questions and offering assistance to those in need. I sighed, knowing that she would move from her current location about five times before I would reach her. Luckily, she did not get too far before we were able to catch up.
Diana is a friendly and energetic woman with a clear objective. Helping feed underprivileged children is her passion. She and her husband started the program in 2007 after a trip to El Salvador.
We saw starvation and poverty, so we started talking with the schools. Burke Street and Winchester Avenue were the first because back then they were considered the lowest income. Now it’s pretty even all the way around. They started telling us stories of teachers bringing in granola and little things to send home with the kids. All of it was out of pocket.
The story that really made us want to do this was the story of a little girl who would come to school in dirty clothes. It wasn’t neglect. Her mom was a single mother, working three jobs and trying to make ends meet. The little girl’s friends knew that she was going hungry. At lunch they would give her food. The teacher didn’t know this when she took her coat home to wash it and found food in the pockets and in the lining. The children didn’t tell because they were afraid that she would get in trouble.
Diana said that this was reminiscent of what she witnessed in El Salvador when working to feed the hungry. Older children would wait for their younger siblings to eat their fill before taking any food for themselves.
They would eat; if there was anything left, the older child would eat. They would go without if they had to. It was exactly what we were seeing here. You just didn’t hear about it back then. It wasn’t talked about.
We started the KPP program in 2007. We used food boxes through Angel Food, a discounted food program. We would come in once a month. The counselors would identify a family in need and send them to us. Eventually, it evolved into this.
The current program is highly efficient. As we talked about her work, I watched the volunteers bag the KPP’s in a neat assembly line. According to Diana, they pack over 4000 bags in about an hour and half. Part of the efficiency is that they buy food instead of hosting food drives.
The Kidz Power Pac program is a weekend, holiday break and summer feeding program for school aged children. They estimate feeding about 900 children for the 2015-2016 school year, serving 29 schools in Berkeley and Jefferson Counties. The program is solely based on public sponsorship and does not source any of its food from local food banks.
We buy in bulk from Sam’s Club, Aldi and sometimes Walmart. We don’t do a many food drives. We ask people to sponsor a child instead. It is just $20 a month, and that provides the child with a bag each weekend. They also get their break bags.
We asked Diana what she wanted the community to know about the Kidz Power Pacs. Aside from sponsoring a child, which you can do on their website through PayPal, she advised that the program has many needs.
We always need helping hands, especially on Friday nights to unload and unwrap all of the food. It takes a lot of work, so the more hands we have on Friday night the easier and faster it goes. We are also looking for someone to donate or give us a really good deal on a box truck. Every month we have to rent a truck to get the food. Every time we rent the truck, I instantly think “Okay, that’s like eight kids.” I now calculate everything in $20.00.
We are also homeless right now. We had an office donated to us for two years, but the owner needed that space back. We are looking for something between 500 to 800 square feet. This would be for us to work out of through the month because everything is in my house right now. A warehouse or something would definitely be nice. We have outgrown this space. My husband is a contractor, so even if we could find something that we could rehab, that would be helpful. We would like to be in the Martinsburg area so that the families can get to us.
Office space is our biggest need right now. We have another ministry called One Harvest, similar to the way Angel Food was back in the day. It provides discounted food boxes. We use it to try to get even more food to the whole family so that they can fix meals. It comes in once a month, usually on the same day that we bag the Kidz Power Pacs. My husband and I go into DC to pick it up and bring it back. EBT cards are accepted, but anyone in the community can order. Unfortunately, our orders have dropped since we do not have an office space.
I was curious about how the children and families in need were identified, and how the food was provided to the children to take home each weekend. Diana stated that the teachers will watch to see if students are coming in hungry and sluggish on Monday mornings. To prevent embarrassing a child, the principal or a counselor will talk to the student in private to see if they are in need.
Sometimes the parents will call in to ask about the program and explain their situation. So many people instantly think they are taking advantage of the system. Although that can happen, the percentage is so small. Regardless, it is not the child’s fault. Our numbers fluctuate constantly, and not because children are always being added. Sometimes parents will call to let us know that they got their job back or had their hours increased. This gets them over that hump. When they no longer need it, they will say “bless another child.”
Diana’s family understands what it’s like to need a helping hand. Her husband became very ill in 2010 after purchasing a foreclosure that needed a good deal of work. As a contractor, he was planning to do much of the work himself before falling ill and having a total of eight surgeries.
We couldn’t get any help from DHHR (West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources) because as a contractor, he had a backhoe and other tools. You can’t have any assets to get assistance. I’m not putting them down because they have their rules, but so many people instantly think you are covered, and we found out we were not.
I came home one day and there are all these cars parked at my house. My heart dropped because I thought they were there to tell me my husband had passed away. I walked in to find people painting and installing floors. A plumber was working on the bathroom. It was the community. That’s what inspired Community Combined Ministries. That’s how it was formed.
Diana is clear that the KPP program would not be successful without the work of their numerous volunteers and the 41 churches with which they are affiliated. If you are interested in helping out with this program, check out their website where you can sponsor a child, find information about volunteering and find the KPP schedule. You can also reach out to them on their Facebook page. Check out the photos below to see what it looks like to be a KPP volunteer.
(Photo Credits: Nicholas Trietsch)