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Generosity of local church provides meals for NV Schools elementary students over weekends

Not every elementary student in Nooksack Valley Schools has enough food to the last the weekend. That situation changed this year with the generosity of Calvary Creekside, a local church.

Funded by the church and community partners, the Open Hands program loads packs full of kid-friendly, easily prepared food for at-need Nooksack Valley students to take home on Fridays, calculated to last through the weekend. A program that started at just Everson Elementary last school year has taken on a new life and expanded to all three elementary schools this year.

The needs are there. The help is felt.

“We have had many stories shared recently about families in need,” says Megan Vigre, Sumas principal. “For example, a couple of girls shared that their parents are working on the weekend so they love that the food that comes home and is something they can prepare and eat. Another family we know has some children living with their grandmother who is battling cancer. Having the additional food support has helped these children, and there are many more stories like this and it is nice to know that we are a community that cares deeply for one another. We feel loved by the people at Creekside who are caring for our community.”

The effort has been a major undertaking for the small church located on East Badger Road, but one the church has tackled with enthusiasm. “We believe it is a great privilege to serve the kids and their families and stand in the gap in regard to hunger in their lives,” says Tony Neal, Calvary Creekside pastor. “It is something that is honoring to the Lord and a great privilege to serve our community in that regard.”

The Open Hands program grew out of a national Backpack Buddies concept. Calvary Creekside was serving a small number of students at one elementary school at Lynden Schools when Neal and Everson principal Kevin DeVere met about helping the students at Everson. From there, the two hatched a plan specific for Nooksack Valley. Normally the nationwide program simply selected students on the free and reduced lunch rate and then handed out packs.

DeVere didn’t want to create a division within the school — one with a much higher population of students on free and reduced than others in the county — of those receiving packs and those not. “Working together we brainstormed a really great way,” DeVere says. “We decided to do a two-week trial.”

In the first two weeks of the program in January 2018, the church created slimmed-down versions of the packs for every student to bring home. It also included a flyer with information about the program and an opportunity for families to opt-in. DeVere says it not only gave a tangible example of what the program was all about, but it eliminated the mystery around the program as everyone had a chance to participate.

“The church was willing to trust that a family would ask if there was a need,” DeVere says. “If they returned the flyer saying they needed help, then they were there to give them the help. It worked totally slick.”

Open Hands followed that same model this September when expanding to all three elementary schools. Larae Tjoelker, a volunteer helping spearhead the effort for the church, says the church now feeds 129 students weekly at Sumas Elementary, 109 students at Everson and 90 at Nooksack.

“We have approximately half our students at Sumas Elementary that meet the low-income criteria,” Vigre says. “And, not surprising, this is about the same number Open Hands is supporting by providing food sent home for the weekend.”

Calvary Creekside has really had to step up its volunteer efforts. One storage container to store food and serve as home base for packing has turned into multiple container, complete with a regular schedule of packers and those willing to help deliver the food to the schools every Friday.

With such a major commitment from Calvary Creekside, the Whatcom County community has gotten on board with assisting the effort. From bag donation efforts from Fred Meyer’s to food donations from Erin Baker’s, Tjoelker says she has really seen God move people from all over to help in the effort.

The support has been more than financial too. Groups have come to help pack bags, everyone from representatives of the Mt. Baker Rotary Club to teachers at Nooksack Elementary.

“There is national research around the fact that there is stress put on families for out of school times like weekends for food,” DeVere says. “The response we got seems to indicate this is a definite need in our community.”

Calvary Creekside has partnered with Nooksack Valley Schools to remove that need.