‘Backpack Project’ by Champaign soup kitchen brightens up C-U during holiday season

By Arielle Kramer

For some less fortunate individuals, however, this time of year doesn’t mean family time or extravagant meals. But a Champaign soup kitchen is trying to give a whole new meaning to the season of giving.

The Daily Bread Soup Kitchen was established about seven years ago, but the vision has existed since 1980, when it was called the Catholic Worker House.

According to Karen Pickard, one of the Kitchen’s volunteers, Daily Bread is a very unique nonprofit organization because it is only composed of volunteers.

“We survive on donations and some local grants. We’re also very fortunate to get a lot of food donated,” Pickard explains. “We get food from local restaurants, (and) we get a lot of food from university housing units.”

The Kitchen operates out of New Covenant Fellowship of Champaign, providing free hot lunches Monday through Friday to approximately 1,000 people.

The Kitchen also distributes hot meals through a mobile van, reaching around 400 more Champaign-Urbana residents.

But in honor of the season of giving, the board members of the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen start planning a new campaign during the month of November: the backpack project.

Stevie Bennett, founder of the project, explained that the idea came to her when she took a trip to Menard’s about six years ago.

“They had backpacks for $4, and so I picked up five or so. I called people, and I said, ‘Hey, we should get backpacks for $4, and we could give them to our guests for Christmas.’ And we thought, ‘Well, why don’t we fill them with stuff?,’” Bennett said. “It just kind of blossomed from that.”

Bennett started volunteering at the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen because of her troubled daughter, who abused drugs and alcohol and subsequently became homeless in Arizona.

“She said, ‘You know I couldn’t get by without (Society of) St. Vincent DePaul Soup Kitchen out there.’ That was really important to know that she went to a soup kitchen,” Bennett said. “And when we retired, she did pass away 11 years ago, and we started working for the soup kitchen before that because of what she said.”

Bennett’s project entails stuffing hundreds of backpacks with beneficial items, whether they can help guests survive a harsh winter or simply put a smile on their face.

“Everything is brand new. New backpacks filled with underwear, socks, gloves, hats, snack items,” Pickard said. “People put in the most amazing things — a book of crossword puzzles, christmas cards for them to send with stamps. Pens, pencils, thermal cups for hot drinks, handwarmers. We just stuff them to the gills.”

Since its first year, the project has gained considerable attention and the amount of people served has increased each time around.

“The first year, we gave out 200 backpacks,” Pickard said. “The second year, we were able to collect and distribute 400 backpacks. The third year, 800. The fifth year, we did 1,000 backpacks. It’s a wonderful, wonderful initiative that we’re happy to do every year.”

Although a majority of the guests that receive the backpacks are homeless, many of them are not; they simply are part of the working poor and lack “creature comfort,” as Pickard puts it.

The Kitchen’s volunteers pack the backpacks. The Kitchen is even trying to recruit University Registered Student Organizations and greek life, as the project is a huge undertaking that involves many hours of hard work.

Ellen Harms, another volunteer at the Kitchen, who started there about five years ago, heard about the organization through her four children, who attended catholic school in the area. Because she has a bachelor’s degree in social work she wanted to get involved in a social welfare program.

Harms also explained the next step of the process: “filling” day, which takes place a few days before the giveaway.

“We pile out all the donations that we have. We kind of do a spot check of every backpack,” Harms said. “We also have people to mark them by the size and sex.”

This year, the Kitchen will distribute the backpacks on December 18.

The backpack project is unique because it targets a specific audience that is often overlooked over the holiday season.

“There’s so many programs for kids. Don’t get me wrong, I love kids … but we have Toys for Tots and Shop with a Cop and the Salvation Army does an amazing toy drive,” Harms said. “Some of our guests are people that no one would remember. For many of them, this is their Christmas present.”

Although this project provides Christmas presents, it all begins with the giving spirit of Thanksgiving.

“I think of it as a holiday project,” Harms said. “Thanksgiving is when people start thinking about their own blessings and are reminded that there are people whose lives are very different. It’s the time when you’re pulling out your coat, gloves and mittens, and it’s the time when you really start thinking about what the next few months are going to be like. Many people need help to survive the winters we have here in Champaign.”

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