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Children's food program in 15th year

Jun 16, 2023

From left to right, Chuck Gates, Jerry Jochim, Kathy Thoma, Sue Stahl, Tom Shumaker, Mary Lou Klage, Linda Shumaker, Mary Powell and Rose Gates with the Food For The Children program.

DANVILLE — A program that has been meeting the needs of hungry children for 15 years will continue as long as it can as the need remains.

A common theme among the approximately 13 board members and 30 volunteers, mostly retired residents, who make Food For The Children possible is that they participate in it because it’s a rewarding program making an impact with local families.

On Friday, volunteers will be in an assembly line at Life Church on Bowman Avenue gathering the food in boxes to then distribute to children at local schools.

It’s organized chaos, as they chat, laugh and pack food on Friday mornings.

If there is a school holiday on a Thursday or Friday, they pack on a Thursday or earlier in the week. They don’t pack food on spring, fall and Christmas breaks.

The group starts this time every year a few weeks into the start of a new school year and continues through May, a week or so before school lets out for the summer.

Program founder Rose Gates, 88, a former nurse, started a summer lunch program in 2008 for Cannon Elementary School students of daily peanut butter and jelly or bologna and cheese sandwiches.

Gates and the volunteers then did a year of the summer program and started the weekend program. The items in the backpacks had to be non-perishable and packaged items.

The group eventually dropped the summer program because other organizations were providing more summer meals, but chose to stick with the weekend program only. Thus, the Feed the Children Backpack Program was born.

The program filled backpacks with nutritious and easy-to-prepare food for students to take home on weekends throughout the school year. The program expanded to include several more schools.

The volunteers pack about 300 or more boxes now with donated food. They have given out up to about 426 meals at one time. They packed 15,125 total meals last year.

“That’s a lot of food for the kids,” said board of directors member Sue Stahl.

Teachers and social workers identify children who are at risk for hunger.

Rose said she’s proud that many of the volunteers with the program have been there 12 years or more.

“It’s been a good, hard-working group that have stuck together, and we’ve got 28 volunteers and many of those have been here most of those years,” Gates said. “It’s just been a blessing that we’ve got these kind of people working with us. They’ve been the ones that have really got this thing through.”

The program has undergone a few name changes, such as the Feed the Children Backpack Program and Rose Feeds the Children.

The program no longer uses backpacks to give out the food. Instead they use boxes and bags. There are two sets of boxes for the deliveries, so when they deliver new food, they pick up the previous week’s boxes.

The program started at Trinity Lutheran Church’s choir room and used part of the storage area that was for robes.

“But the numbers increased, and so then we moved to the stage, behind the curtain on the stage. We outgrew that,” Gates said.

The church then had an aisle, beside the stage, and shelves for the food. Gates said they then outgrew that area, too.

The group started looking for a free space to house the expanded program.

Kathy Thoma who attends Life Church, suggested the Bowman Avenue church as a new location. The pastor and church were willing to help with one of its buildings.

“They have been wonderful,” Gates said, adding that the church assisted with more shelving and storage space. “They really wanted us here. So here we are.”

Stahl said Gates’ purpose is pure and it’s all about feeding the kids.

“She’s instilled that, luckily, in all of us, too,” Stahl said.

Board member Mary Powell, who was a teacher, has been part of the program since the beginning and has seen how impactful the program is from the student side.

Board member Jerry Jochim said he loves being a part of the program and looks forward to help on Fridays.

Board member Mary Lou Klage said, “it’s been probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve done. I love it. It’s my social life.”

Board member Linda Shumaker said when Gates finds out you’re retired, she’ll get right on it.

Many in the group have worked together at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System, in addition to going to the same church or hearing about the program from Gates through their church.

Board member Tom Shumaker said one of the most impressive aspects about the program is that all the funding goes to food. No one is paid. They are all volunteers.

“It’s because they want to be here to help feed children,” he said about the volunteers.

The program does receive funding for the boxes, bags and food.

Gates said she previously wrote for grants, but now the program is supported by donations.

Donations come from organizations, businesses and others.

“This generous community we live in, it’s the businesses, the organizations, individuals, there are some faithful individuals sending me $200 every month,” Gates said of the program. “This is phenomenal.”

Gates’ husband, Chuck, also has helped with the program since the beginning.

The volunteers range in age from 91 years old to younger than 10 years old. Some people bring their children and grandchildren when they can.

The program delivers to all the Danville School District 118 elementary schools, South View Upper Elementary School and North Ridge Middle School. They also delivered to Trinity Lutheran School for a while.

Gates said there’s a strong possibility they’re adding Kenneth D. Bailey Academy this year.

“I have had some calls with the social worker and she said that they have some children, one in particular is in dire need for food,” Gates said.

Some of the children in the schools are considered homeless because they live in multiple homes.

Stahl said they love when they hear from the schools about how grateful the children are for the food program.

They said they hear over and over of stories of kids who can’t wait until Friday to get their bag.

One letter Gates received was from a husband and wife who had gotten jobs. They thanked her and said they appreciated the food program for their family when they needed it.

Gates said another couple who had gotten laid off, asked for help for their children with the initial summer program. Lunches were sent to the family, and Gates said soon after the family came to see if they could help with the program and payback the help they received.

“These people really are grateful. It’s not just a handout,” Gates said.

The need hasn’t decreased for Food For The Children.

Gates and the other volunteers say with inflation and cost increases, it’s harder for families to buy food.

“These kids are our future,” Gates said. “They’re not going to be able to think as they should, their growth isn’t going to be normal, the whole process of growing does not take place if you don’t have the nutrition. I think it’s our job, as long as we can, to provide that nutrition.”

“It’s just vital for our community,” she added.

A lunch menu can include tomato soup, mac and cheese, Vienna sausages, fruit cup, pudding, cereal bowl, peanut butter crackers, juice and granola bars. The next week could include chicken noodle soup and ravioli and some of the other items. The following weeks could include spaghetti and meatballs or lasagna and pork and beans. The program rotates the menu too add variety.

There are usually nine to 10 items for the weekend meals.

This year, the program is going to try to send home a jar of peanut butter once a month.

The group also tries to incorporate special treats during holidays, like chocolate bunnies around Easter. Oatmeal and hot chocolate can be added in the winter.

Each school works out how the children get the food, such as in lockers, on the bus or another way.

“So, this has really been an active 15 years,” Gates said.

She and the volunteers said it’s hard to believe it’s been that long. Gates and the program have been fortunate to receive recognition awards through the years.

“As long as there’s a need, I feel we have to be here for them,” Gates said.

It’s going to be depending a lot on the economy in future years, she added.

“We have a bunch of kids depending on us,” Gates said.

To donate to the program, checks can be made out to Food For The Children and sent to 21438 Denmark Road, Danville, IL 61834.

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