The backpack program at East Lincoln High School is not new. It started several years ago when Sister Maria Pepitone and a group of around 20 women with Mercy Associates reached out to make sure the high school students were being taken care of. 

“The local elementary and middle schools all had backpack programs and they wanted the needs of the older students to be met as well,” Principal Marybeth Avery said. “They would send in food monthly and it just grew from there.”

This is the first year the school has collaborated with counselors and social workers to make sure they were reaching everyone, not overlapping and trying to be sure no one fell through the cracks. This is also the first year they’ve worked with our school’s Parent Teacher Student Organization to keep the pantry stocked.

“We still get donations from Mercy Associates, Holy Spirit Catholic Church and Lake Forest Church,” Avery said.  

“Lisa Donnellan, with the help of the entire guidance office, has been wonderful about working with our students in need,” Shawn Zirkle, a math teacher at East Lincoln High School and the sponsor for Fellowship of Christian Athletes said. “They reach out to the students initially about receiving food help. I believe the students feel more comfortable talking with their counselors about their individual personal needs like food insecurities than they would one of their classroom teachers. Having their counselor checking on them creates a bond that can extend to all topics, not just food insecurities. The students have been assured of their privacy and confidentiality. The counselors have been working along with our social worker, Aubrey Spizzo to make sure we are reaching all our students in need.”

In general, Donnellan added while the resources are advertised, reaching out for different reasons, like social, emotional or academic, brings to light any food insecurities that may exist. Guidance counselors and social workers from other schools within the East Lincoln feeder district collaborate with each other so that needs are known before the student reaches high school. Sometimes, because the backpacks can be heavy, Spizzo delivers them right to the student’s home.

Another active participant in the group, Stuart Robinson, an exceptional children teacher at the school, with the assistance of students if needed, gets the backpacks ready each week. He also keeps track of what’s in the pantry and organizes everything by expiration date. Because his office is located near where students would get on the bus, this provides a quick, convenient and discreet place for students to pick their bags up each week. 

“The PTSO has been recently enlisted to send out a signup genius to parents to help keep our pantry stocked,” Zirkle said. “They’re collecting food in the drop-off line in the mornings. It’s my understanding that they will do this for us once a month.”

Alpacas to the rescue. 

In February, the PTSO sponsored a food pantry event at Good Karma Ranch where they collected supplies or food in exchange for entry and interaction with alpacas. This was in conjunction with PTSO members Shelly and her son, Ryan who’s a student at East Lincoln High School. 

“My parents have built a sustainable business and have a large group of people that they stay in contact with,” Ryan Walsh said. “They use that influence when there’s a need to be met. The price for admission was four or five cans of food. A lot of people brought a lot more. It was really amazing to see the community come together. A lot of them weren’t even connected to the school.”

As the newly formed PTSO’s first sponsors, they agreed to host this food drive annually in support of the ELHS program.

“I can’t believe how much food was gathered during this event,” Robinson said. “It made all the difference in the world. We have enough to last all year with the addition of a few things like boxes of cereal.”

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, headed up by Adam Zirkle, cleaned out the food pantry over the summer, put up shelves and organized all the supplies. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes students plan to continue to provide volunteers to help keep the pantry organized and cleaned out when needed as well as help pack the backpacks.  The plan is for Fellowship of Christian Athletes to clean and organize the pantry each summer to get it ready for the first week of school.

Typically, the pantry supports 12 student families however the needs is potentially greater than 20, according to Shawn Zirkle.


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