Fueling Success with CarePacks By: Terry Callahan

Every month a whirlwind of activity happens behind Door Number 9 at the former Black and Decker building as community volunteers gather to pack weekend foods for children facing food insecurity. In two shifts (beginning 9 a.m. and 11:45 a.m.), four weekends’ bags of food, 300 bags per weekend, are prepared for distribution. CarePacks of Talbot County, in partnership with the Maryland Food Bank, includes all public schools in Talbot County. “We’re usually about ten percent of each school that we service,” said Megan Cook who, along with Emily Moody, implemented the program.
CarePacks began by serving thirty children. Now in its seventh school year, about 400 to 450 children participate in the program which provides two each of weekend breakfasts and lunches, several snacks and fresh fruit. Younger students receive bags of food in their backpacks; older students partake of items from school-based food pantries. “I think that it’s grown because of awareness. The need is growing. Because of word of mouth, the staff is more aware of it [CarePacks],” Maggie explained.
Students receiving packs are often children of working parents on a fixed income. When the costs of rent and gas go up, for example, “what is squeezed is the food budget. Word is getting out that there is an organization to help them. We’re doing the best we can to help take the stress off and get them through the weekend.”
The other key piece of the program is the separation of school and community. Only a very few people in each school know which children get the help. Schools have a community liaison and a CarePacks parent volunteer. Maggie Gowe, CarePacks of Talbot County Coordinator, was a volunteer for SMES. These volunteers pick up the bins with the month’s packs and take them back to their school. When the smaller children are not in the classroom, the bags are put in their backpacks in their classroom cubbies or placed in the backpack in their locker.
On packing day Maggie comes in early to set up. CarePacks is able to use the open space adjacent to its pantry to pack. It’s the same space that the Sheriff’s Office uses to park their cars. A number of organizations have space in the old Black and Decker building. Next to that area are two other not-for-profits. Members often come over to help Maggie get things ready. The morning crew counts the food and places it into bins. The afternoon volunteers then form an assembly line to pack the hundreds of bags of food. As Megan said, “if you can only stay an hour, that’s fine, but come prepared to work for that hour.”
Children are identified for the program in a variety of ways. Teachers, school nurses, counselors, cafeteria staff and administrators are among those who make the recommendation. Recommendations at EES, along with other schools, go to Emily. Then she sends each family an invitation to participate. When one child in a family is identified, all the school children in the family are included. Updated communication is key because a family may only need to be on the program for a few months until they get back on their feet.
Contributing to the success of the program is the community support it receives. CarePacks is supported by numerous clubs, associations, organizations, businesses and individuals.  “We have not gone outside Talbot County for funding,” says Megan. “The citizens of Talbot County have been so generous. That’s where we get 100% of our funds.” As much of the food as possible is bought from the Maryland Food Bank and is much less expensive bought in bulk. Food not available there is bought in bulk at BJ’s. “We have to be the stewards of your funds,” says Megan.
A newer CarePacks program is Fourth Friday, based at Easton Elementary School. This program has a family focus. When families come that afternoon, the adult receives several bags to go “shopping” from the pantry, including meat, fresh fruits and larger bulk items.
Summer creates a different situation. “We do reach out in the summertime,” says Maggie. The program’s second summer, Emily and Megan rented a bus from TCPS and rode to each of the schools , bringing books and food. The following year CarePacks began a partnership with the YMCA. Maggie added, “This summer CarePacks, in association with the YMCA, helped send 75 kids to camp and supplied them with CarePacks bags (50 in Easton, 25 in St. Michaels). Also, students who receive bags during the school year receive them if they go to summer school.”
“We do our best to service those children 365 days a year,” says Megan. She adds that it’s the partnership between the school system and the community that is the key. “Without their partnership we wouldn’t be as successful.”
For more information on donating, volunteering and needed food items, contact Maggie Gowe at carepackstc@gmail.com or go to www.eescarepacks.org.