Residents of a local retirement community became a steady source of funds for a program that helps make sure some elementary school students have food over the weekend.

Suzanne Howe, guidance counselor at the York Haven Elementary School in the Northeastern School District, said that because of the economy, more families were approaching her about various needs, including food. She'd heard about backpack programs and started a pilot program at the school last year, with help from the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank.

Through the program, students in need -- those who qualify for free or reduced lunch are eligible -- can pick up a backpack of food on Fridays. They return the pack on Monday so it can be refilled.

York Haven already had a connection with residents at Country Meadows of Leader Heights, Howe said.

Students and residents are pen pals, and seniors also come to read to students several times a month, she said. So the school told the retirement community about the backpack program.

York Haven Elementary has developed a program that sends backpacks full of food home with students who need it over the weekend.
York Haven Elementary has developed a program that sends backpacks full of food home with students who need it over the weekend. ( DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS--JASON PLOTKIN)

Dotty McConkey, 83, said that when she heard there were kids who didn't have food for the weekend, "it just kind of tore me apart."

She, her husband, Bob, 89, and several other residents formed a committee to begin fundraising to support the program. Over the past school year, they raised $6,000 to help purchase food for the backpacks.

They've sold chocolate covered pretzels, peanut butter eggs, and potato beads -- jewelry made from potatoes -- and held "fine dining" nights, when residents and their guests can pay for a meal and entertainment.

McConkey, who said she's probably the youngest on the committee, said it became her passion. The group will probably take the summer off and regroup in the fall to come up with some new fundraising ideas, she said.

The relationship between the school and the residents is good for the kids, who can learn from their elders, she said, and for the seniors, some of whom might not get to see their own grandchildren or great-grandchildren.

"We've kind of adopted the school," she said

Howe said she's hoping that the program can spread to other schools in the district. She receives some grant money from the Central PA Food Bank and a district sponsorship program, she said, but the Country Meadows residents have been a steady source.

"They bought into the program," she said.

At a glance

In the last nine weeks of 2010-11, the pilot weekend backpack program provided food to 42 children in 27 families, and 79 backpacks were distributed.

In 2011-12, 60 families are currently involved, representing 150 children. From October through April 27, they have filled 600 backpacks.

Recognition

The Northeastern School District recently held its first Board of School Directors Recognition Night.

Suzanne Howe, guidance counselor at York Haven Elementary School, was honored for her work to start the weekend backpack program, which sends foods home on weekends with kids who need it.

@angiemason1; 771-2048