Written by Lynn Cuffari former principal, St. Augustine Catholic High School
Tablets filled with academic notes and squiggly doodles, an array of colorful markers, half-sharpened pencils, raggedy erasers, crumpled math assignments, scented lip balm, a wrinkled gym shirt, and even perhaps a peanut butter sandwich and a granola bar fill the backpacks of almost every student who shoulders the duties of “school” each day in America. But teens at St. Augustine Catholic High School in Tucson, Arizona understand that what is hidden in the folds of a child’s backpack has the potential to go way beyond feeding a student’s mind; the contents may very well nourish an entire family.
For the past five years, students at St. Augustine have sustained an effort that started with the suggestion of a school parent inspired by an article she had read concerning childhood hunger. “In these times, we see many parents trying to choose between paying rent and buying enough food to feed their children,” the parent wrote in a 2014 letter to the school community. Several organizations such as the National Backpack Program, Feeding America, and others send non-perishable food home in the backpacks of students on a regular basis in order to fill the pantries of those in need. The St. Augustine community embraced this idea and initiated their own program – a mission they continue today through the determined effort of students, faculty, and parent volunteers.
Each family receives a backpack filled with food twice a month. Students need only basic math skills to realize that 16 backpacks filled with 8 cans of food multiplied by 2 times a month and then by 10 months in a school year results in a sum that makes a quantifiable difference in the lives of their neighbors. Families who receive the backpacks are identified by participating schools. Backpacks are rotated regularly and distributed to students who anonymously carry the food home along with their regular stash of books and assignments.
The St. Augustine school community is small – about 285. Many of the students receive financial assistance to pay their tuition. Community service is at the core of St. Augustine’s mission, where students are “encouraged to grow in the Christian life through dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship, and celebration.”
“This year, we decided to ramp up the program twice a month instead of just once a month. The students really felt like doing this because eight cans of food were not enough for those needy families,” said Lisa Imblum, current faculty adviser of the school’s Angel Bugs club. The St. Augustine Angel Bugs Club was organized more than five years ago by Katrina Powell, a service-minded faculty member who wanted to show her students that they could make a difference “one moment at a time.” This year, the club has more than 15 dedicated participants. These students are also involved in other school organizations like the National Honor Society and Student Council. In addition, theology class projects include working with migrant families, making blankets for babies in the local community, and sponsoring an annual toy drive to ensure children at the Diamond Children’s Center in Tucson receive Christmas gifts.
“We held our annual food drive in September and collected over 800 cans of food…Angel Bugs members and I soon realized this would not last long because we use 256 food items per month and many of the more nutritious items were dwindling in the pantry.”
Student Council members offered to lend a hand, make posters, spread the word on social media, and promote another food drive where students earned a free dress day for donating two cans of food. With the help of additional students and faculty from the culinary class and Wolves for Life club who organize the pantry, this year’s backpack program will certainly meet its goals. Parents who transport the backpacks to the schools and parishes also serve a vital role. Volunteer and Marine Corps combat veteran Scott Taras said, “When I learned we would be donating food to the less fortunate in my very own community, I just had to get involved. I want to help my country and community…. I’m the last stage of the mission.”
Those on the receiving end are exuberant in their praise. Laura Stehle, the Director of Religious Education, Christian Life and Social Concerns at Our Mother of Sorrows Parish in Tucson said, “There are a growing number of school families that find it difficult to make ends meet and as a result are unable to provide nutritious meals for their children. Through the National School Lunch Program, students are able to get a morning snack and lunch but that still leaves students without enough food for dinner on days there is no school. The backpacks of food these students receive from St. Augustine High School every few weeks fill-in that gap.” A St. Augustine senior shared their enthusiasm.
“My favorite part about being president of the Angel Bugs is knowing I’m making an impact in someone’s life. I feel like a lot of people my age don’t believe we can do that…. It’s surprising how many of the students jumped at the chance to help out. Some of them were students I never expected to take it seriously and they were among the most helpful. For us, it may be just eight little cans of food in a backpack, but to the families it could mean the difference between going to bed hungry or satisfied.”
While students earn service hours for various projects they do throughout the year, Imblum said her students have never asked for that recognition. “I feel they do this without hesitation as part of being members of the club and as students who want to help their fellow Catholic Christian community.”
St. Augustine Principal, Dave Keller, echoed this sentiment. “I think it’s tremendous that our students have been able to sustain such a worthy project over the last several years. Too often students of this generation are accused of being self-centered clearly this is not the case.”
It is clear that when students open their hearts as well as their backpacks, good things happen. Angel Bugs member and junior Marian Rivera said it best: “Speaking personally, it’s very reassuring knowing that a backpack full of essential foods is being donated to a family who truly needs it. I remember when I was younger, money was tight, and my mother tried her best to feed her children every day. This is my way of giving to similar families around Tucson. I am very happy with St. Augustine Catholic High School for having the Angel Bugs club, and I’m happier every year when I see more students wanting to help out.”
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Lynn Cuffari was the principal of St. Augustine Catholic High School for eight years. She served as both an administrator and teacher in the Diocese of Tucson for more than 20 years before recently moving to Washington, D.C. with her husband. She is also a former journalist. Lynn currently works for Curriculum Trak as a sales consultant.