WINDSOR – Their work continues despite the pandemic.
That’s the feeling of Youth Bertie, Inc. – also known as the Backpack Program – as they continue their work of assuring Bertie County elementary school students of free at-home meals and nutritious fruit and snacks provided for them on weekends.
Bertie County has 24.8 percent food instability, one of the highest percentages in eastern North Carolina, while 34 percent of the children in the county suffer food insecurity. Food instability is a lack of access to enough food or a limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.
“That’s why we started this thing five years ago,” said Bertie County Commissioner and the program’s Executive Director Ron Wesson. “We did 100 kids that first year and now it’s grown to 110.”
Before the pandemic and in its first four years, Youth Bertie did most of its fund-raising from the end of the school term in spring to the return to classes in the fall.
“On the weekends, especially when you reach the end of the month and run out of food stamps or run out of money, there is a food shortage,” Wesson revealed. “The small kids are the least able to fend for themselves, which is why we started with elementary students, but we have a need for all kids throughout our community.
“It cost us $185 a year to feed a child,” he continued. “So each year we had to raise about $38,000 to run this program. This year with COVID, the tornado, and everything else in the county it’s made it more challenging.”
This year, an anonymous donor stepped in and made an $11,000 contribution to assist with maintaining the program since the pandemic cut short much of the group’s usual fund-raising. Letters requesting donation that usually went out in March, now were not sent until December due to COVID-19.
“We purchase the Packs from the Albemarle Food Bank and it consists of two breakfasts, two lunches, healthy snacks, and we put in fresh fruit, purchased at a discount from the Windsor Food Lion. Before, the teachers would then hand the Packs out every Friday for the kids to take home for the weekend, or parents would pick the packs up,” Wesson noted. “But when kids went out on virtual learning, we didn’t have that mechanism.”
He continued, “COVID kind of kicked things into disarray and the county (Bertie County Schools) stepped in when learning went virtual. Now, thanks to the county’s Recreation Department (Donna Mizelle and Emily Jernigan) stepping in and picking up the Packs from the 900 Building at the old Bertie High School and delivering them to the county’s five elementary schools, the food can now go out on Fridays by school bus with the regular daily food delivery.”
Thanks to BCS Superintendent Dr. Otis Smallwood, the school district applied for a $400,000 grant allowing them to use the school buses. Now, regardless of transportation, all the county’s school children can be served.
“The schools have really been great partners,” Wesson acknowledged. “Our money is raised grass-roots – from individuals, churches, sponsorships and organizations. For the past few years we’ve gotten the Vidant Community Grant, a grant from United Way of the Albemarle, and earlier a grant from Perdue Farms.
“The schools even allow the teachers and staff to donate through payroll deductions,” he added. “Janitors, teachers, bus drivers, administrators, everyone contributing their $5 and $10 per paycheck has been a big boost to us.”
Bertie County 4-H’ers used to stuff the backpacks for the first three years, but for the last two years members of the Solid Foundation (members that are physically and mentally challenged) have done the packing.
“Every single penny that’s donated to us goes directly to buy food,” Wesson maintained. “Four founding members of our Board (Dr. Ben Speller, Dr. Johnny Hill and Karen Ray, John and Cindy Davis and Ron and Dr. Patricia Wesson) put in money ($1,000) to pay all the expenses for everything but the food, which is paid by the donor dollars.”
Before the pandemic, Youth Bertie was planning a quarterly Service Project with kids from the community. They were able to complete one project before COVID put a stop to their plans.
“We’re not doing big stuff, just things like cleaning up the Windsor Tennis Courts, planting flowers, cleaning up behind the old Ethridge school and adding grills and picnic tables – donated by the town of Windsor – and contributions from the community,” Wesson remarked. “Our next project when things resume and the kids get back in school will be to provide personal hygiene supplies for junior and senior high school girls. It’s already been approved by the school system and we’ve already purchased the stock.”
If anyone would like to contribute to the Backpack program, they can mail donation to: Youth Bertie, Inc. P.O. Box 778, Windsor, NC 27983.
“We’re committed to this year, and hopefully when things resume and we get back in school physically, we can get to some of those kids on our waiting list,” Wesson concluded.
Gene Motley can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.