CATHLAMET – When the tiny Wahkiakum School District asked the community to help feed hungry students, the local St. Vincent de Paul Society food bank stepped in.
Now parishioners of St. Catherine Mission in Cathlamet (about 25 miles northwest of Longview) help the food bank provide and deliver more than 50 bags of food each week for students enrolled in the Giving Action Plan “Backpack Buddy” program.
“It’s a big effort, but we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing in helping others,” said John Doumit, a St. Catherine parishioner who delivers the GAP bags to Cathlamet’s elementary, middle and high schools — a total of three schools serving the district’s 470 students.
In a district where 58 percent of those students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, first-grade teacher Lisa Sauer knew many kids could be facing a shortage of food at home. So six years ago, she created the GAP program to send food home with kids over the weekend. The idea was to “make sure kids were able to eat when they wanted to,” Sauer said, “and now many families rely on it.”
This year, GAP is one of 278 programs around the Archdiocese of Seattle receiving grants of $450 apiece from the Catholic Relief Services Rice Bowl program. The GAP grant will pay for approximately 130 bags of food.
During Lent, all parishes in the archdiocese participated in the 2017 Rice Bowl effort, donating a total of $490,000, said Kelly Hickman, assistant director for the archdiocesan Missions Office. Most of that money goes to international aid projects, but 25 percent — about $122,000 this year — stays in the archdiocese for local efforts that help the poor in Western Washington, according to Hickman.
When people become aware that some of the Rice Bowl donations benefit local programs, “people respond more enthusiastically,” she said.
The GAP program has received grants for the past three years. This year, 40 new programs applied for Rice Bowl grants, Hickman said. In recent years, the amount of each grant has decreased from $500 to $450 to accommodate the increasing requests, but “we want everyone to apply,” she said.
A community effort
In Cathlamet, Tom Garstki was among the first to step up in 2015 when Sauer, his grandson’s teacher, asked the community to help the growing GAP effort. As manager of the St. Vincent de Paul food bank at St. Catherine (a satellite of SVDP of Longview’s food bank), Garstki had the “facility and means of ordering food at a lower cost,” Sauer said.
Garstki, a St. Catherine parishioner, estimates each bag contains about $3.20 worth of items ($4.50 when peanut butter is added once a month). The bags include a variety of breakfast, lunch and dinner items for weekend meals, including kid-friendly fare such as mac and cheese. Kids may also find donated fruits and vegetables that travel well, such as carrots and apples, in their bags.
During the school year, Garstki orders food and delivers it to Wahkiakum High School, where students pack the bags, earning service hours. Kids who get to take the bags home every week really look forward to Thursdays, Sauer said: “They often ask me, ‘Is today bag day?’”
The generosity of all those involved in the backpack program has impressed Doumit. “It’s been a real blessing for our community,” he said. And John Gotchall, board vice president for St. Vincent de Paul of Longview, calls the program one of the council’s “shining stars.”
Working as a volunteer at the food bank and witnessing community cooperation for the backpack program has had an effect on Gotchall. “As a Christian, it’s opened my eyes to the love that people share,” he said. “People give in so many ways. It warms my heart.”