LA GRANDE — An extra meal could be all it takes to brighten a child’s weekend.

The Union County Friday Backpack Program is in its 13th year of helping local children by sending them home for the weekend with a bag full of meals and snacks. Despite hurdles presented by the pandemic, the organization is still doing what it can to make a difference.

“It’s been important for us to keep going,” Union County Friday Backpack Program President Heather Null said. “There’s been some challenges, but the schools have been really good about working with us and making sure the kids get the food.”

The program was launched locally in 2008, led by Carlene Crampton and Barbara Hicks. With a small group of volunteers, the group started by providing packs of food to 10 students at Island City Elementary School.

Community support and a growing volunteer group increased the program’s spread exponentially, and by 2009 the Union County Friday Backpack Program was providing meals to all nine Union County public grade schools. Fast forward to its peak before the pandemic and the program was packing about 250 bags per week.

“We grew from that first year on,” Null said. “Our numbers vary week to week, but it’s been steadily going up.”

The group of about 15 volunteers meets on Tuesdays at the La Grande Church of Christ to pack the bags and distribute them to grade schools across the county. The volunteers are from a wide age range and have varying experience with the program, but the packing system is a fine-tuned operation. The volunteers circle tables of donated goods and prepare the bags for delivery, taking about 15 minutes to pack all the bags.

Null and the program’s board are thankful for the hardworking volunteers, but COVID-19 created difficulty in keeping that effort alive.

“We didn’t know if we wanted to take the chance of meeting,” Null said. “Our volunteer pool is building back up again. We’re starting to see a lot of our volunteers come back.”

Another obstacle presented by the pandemic was the lack of in-person schooling last year, which caused many in the community to think the program wasn’t in opeartion. That notion, as well as a lack of fundraising opportunities at local events led to a slight dip in donations.

“Getting donations has been a challenge,” Null said. “With the kids being in school or out of school, we weren’t sure how we could get the food to the kids.”

Despite the setbacks, the program is still going strong and carrying on its original mission. The Union County Friday Backpack Program delivers the meals directly to the school and does not see which students receive the meals, but the stories passed back to the organization remind the volunteers why they commit their time and effort.

“We do hear that it’s making an impact. That’s what keeps us going,” Null said. “Sometimes at events like Celebrate La Grande, people will tell us about a time in their life when this was very helpful.”

Null emphasized that the group’s mission could not come to fruition without the community giving consistent support over the years.

“We do this very quietly,” she said. “We’ve got some great long-term donors that we are really thankful for, as well as the community support.”

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