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Black tie affair fills backpacks and stomachs

Greenwood 3rd graders packed two dozen backpacks last Thursday, preparing them to be sent home with kids who don't have enough to eat on weekends. Left to right: Gavin Nichols, Morgan Rippie (partially obscured) and Caleb Thomas. <i>Debbie Griffin photos </i>1 / 2
Rotating groups of students from Greenwood Elementary can walk from school to help fill backpacks for hungry children. Last week's group included these 3rd graders, listed left to right: Caleb Thomas, Morgan Rippie, Gavin Nichols, Anesa Vosburg, and Aeva Noreen.2 / 2

The formal-looking invitation contains no typos and specifically says: "Your absence is requested."

The Kinnickinnic Backpack Program, a part of Our Neighbors' Place emergency shelter and Day Center, organized the fundraiser -- the first one organized by and for the KBP.

The invite suggests not that people attend an event but instead send a donation to the KBP for what guests would have spent on an evening out -- any time before April 20.

Organizers sent about 600 invitations but emphasize that people need not have received a mailer to participate.

The card says, "We're asking you to skip this imaginary black tie affair and donate what you would spend on tickets, clothing, and dinner directly to the Backpack Program. This way, your contribution can start feeding hungry children in River Falls immediately."

It also says 100% of the fundraiser's proceeds go to the KBP.

Our Neighbors' Place co-founder and perpetual volunteer, Mary Joan Sutton, said the Kinnickinnic Backpack Program strives to reach new goals, and the fundraiser will help.

One goal is to add meat and milk vouchers to the outgoing backpacks. The other is to generate the funds needed to provide backpacks throughout summer, too.

ONP Director Katie Morsch says this is the first KBP-exclusive fundraiser but clarifies that many people and entities throughout the community support KBP. It has been the beneficiary of the Martin Luther King commemorative breakfast, numerous food drives and bake sales, and other activities.

They formed the invitation mailing list from lists of volunteers and donors, local businesses and the Chamber of Commerce.

Morsch and volunteer Jackie Cobian say KBP plans to hold a non-event fundraiser annually but change the theme each year. The two agree it's an event that fits everyone's schedules.

Inside the backpack

Several sponsors, along with Our Neighbors Place, help make the Backpack Program happen, including The Salvation Army, Ezekiel Lutheran Church, the River Falls Community Food Pantry, the River Falls School District, Second Harvest Food Bank and many citizens of the community.

The main idea of KBP: Filling backpacks with food for kids who don't have enough to eat at home during the weekend. The packs are "discreetly distributed" to program participants on Friday.

Morsch and Cobian say the number of outgoing backpacks varies week to week. Last week the 3rd graders packed 23 of them.

On average from September through January, says Cobian, "We sent home 499 backpacks for an average of 29 per week."

That totals 4,100 totals pounds of food, an average of 242 pounds of food per week. Cobian said the program sends a little extra home during school-break times.

Items inside the backpack also vary depending on what's bought from the Second Harvest food bank. Generally the packs include about 13 items -- usually a mix of fruit; vegetable; canned meat such as tuna, chicken or stew; two drinks that may be milk, a protein shake or juice; pasta; cereal, oatmeal or pancake mix; a snack pack; soup; crackers; peanut butter and jelly; and, every other week, a milk voucher.

Last Thursday, KBP volunteer Danielle Peterson quickly showed the kids how to move down the "production" line and fill each backpack with one each of 13 items. They work in a small room provided by Ezekiel Lutheran Church and finish the tasks quickly.

The kids said that day's packs held Spaghettios, Beefaroni, beans, fruit, crackers, smoothie drinks...Asked how they felt about doing that work to help hungry kids, one girl spoke for the group with an enthusiastic "Awesome!"

KBP supports want everyone to know they don't need a black-tie invitation to give or volunteer. Gifts are accepted anytime to ONP/Backpack Program at P.O. Box 274, River Falls, 54022. People can also donate online at