For years, New York State’s Liberty Partnership Program has been supporting at-risk middle and high school students across the state. Earlier this year, around 50 students in the Greater Amsterdam School District were part of LPP’s Weekend Backpack Program, spearheaded by Fulton-Montgomery Community College, which gives students access to free meals on Saturdays and Sundays.
However, once the district moved to distance-learning during the week of March 20, that number changed. Instead of feeding around 50 individual students, the program now feeds nearly 140 families in the district, according to Community Schools Coordinator Nancy Rad.
“We started with our piece of it in March, and they were still creating their bags for their individual kids, but we were adding to the bags to make sure other family members would have food as well,” Rad said.
For the last 10 weeks, Rad — along with food organizer Deanna Palczak, program coordinator Kathie LaBarge, several teachers and over 30 volunteers — have added on to the program by coordinating with grocery stores and organizations, and have delivered donations to the 140 families in the district.
“The pandemic caused more hardships for families so the school district and LPP worked together to increase the amount of bags that went out to additional families in need,” LaBarge said.
And as the district helped figure out a solution, Rad and others started noticing more students in need.
“When this first thing happened and [the school] was closing down, I was like, ‘Oh my God — we’ve got to get meals, we’ve got to get the backpacks going for them,’ ” Rad said. “And as we’re compiling lists, the social workers then shared with me names of other kids they were providing for. They were still calling it the ‘backpack program,’ but they weren’t really kids that were identified for the backpack program. We took them all on.”
As the district looked to feed these families amid stay-at-home orders, some who were involved with the effort, including Palczak, took to Facebook to spread the word. The organizer, who doubles as a teaching assistant, announced she was taking food drop-offs at her home, at the high school at certain times of the week and began to coordinate with Hannaford, Union College and other organizations to secure bags, food and other necessities.
“My house turned into a drop-off site,” Palczak says. “One day, maybe I’ll feed one family. Other days, I’ll have friends who donate enough to feed 10 families, or maybe 20.”
Now, local organizations such as the Montgomery-Fulton Area Zonta Club are getting involved. Inge Zimmerman is a member of the club, which is donating books to include in the backpacks. When the school year abruptly moved indoors, Zimmerman had an idea.
“I thought, ‘God, you know, these families don’t have a lot of income. They’re not going to have money to buy books, they’re not going to have money to buy things to entertain their kids,’ ” Zimmerman said. “Plus, these kids are losing a lot of schooling time. So I bought books, put some activity books, or storybooks, teen literature that’s appropriate in the bags of food. I called Nancy and I asked her if she thought this was a decent idea. And she was thrilled. Then I put the call out to my Zonta club and also to other organizations.”
Rad says she is happy with the work the district and LPP have been able to do so far thanks to the local community. In terms of numbers, some days they make deliveries to up to 60 families.
But on days like last Thursday, Rad and Palczak are surrounded by 11 tables full of non-perishable items, ready for them to package and send off. Those items — aside from the new addition of books and occasional face masks — include spaghetti, peanut butter and more.
“There’s just such a need and we wish we could do more,” Rad said. “Our kids rely on school for everything because we are their breakfast, we are their lunch, we are their afternoon snack. There’s so many of them that are 100 percent free lunch in the district.”