On a recent Thursday morning at the Chimes facility in Milford Mill, a group of volunteers and employees were hard at work packing backpacks full of apples, milk, juice, jelly and canned food. While others in the same room were
putting together boxes and loading them with beer from a local brewery to be enjoyed during the upcoming holidays, these backpacks were for those who most need the food.
Since mid-March, 78-year-old Sandie Nagel has spearheaded the Miriam Lodge Weekend Backpacks for Homeless Kids program, which gives Baltimore City students who are experiencing homelessness food-laden backpacks to feed at least four people every weekend. Thirty six students at Tench Tilghman Elementary School in East Baltimore, John Ruhrah Elementary School in Greektown and a small nursery school in the Park Heights area are sent home with backpacks every Friday.
Nagel, past president of the Miriam Lodge, the oldest Jewish women’s charitable organization in Maryland, started Weekend Backpacks, a 501(c)3, after simply asking a question. Nagel’s company, Playbound, which takes people from Baltimore on tours of New York, has been collecting hats, gloves and scarves for the students at Tench Tilghman for the past five years. One day last winter, she asked a social worker how many students at the school were experiencing homelessness, to which she answered 100.
The social worker explained to Nagel that those students get breakfast every morning at school, a hot lunch, fresh fruit in the afternoon and a sandwich to take home.
“But, she said, from Friday until Monday morning when they get back, many of them don’t get any food,” Nagel said. “I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to bring weekend backpacks.’ I had no idea what I was doing.”
She had heard about a similar program on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” but found that there was no national umbrella organization for weekend backpacks. Through Internet research and a lot of phone calls, Nagel connected with other people who run similar programs, found someone willing to donate backpacks and also found her own unique approach. Some of these organizations were only sending home enough food to feed the one child.
“The kid doesn’t live in isolation. And how do you send someone home with food when there’s siblings?” she said. “Our philosophy became we feed the family, as many kids are in the home.”
ShopRite discounts food purchases, H&S Bakery provides discounted bread once a month and various other local organizations have pitched in. In addition to fundraising through Miriam Lodge, students at Krieger Schechter Day School’s middle school gave their tzedakah money to Weekend Backpacks last year and will be providing lunches for students in the program in January, March and May next year. The Irvine Nature Center in Owings Mills is holding a canned good drive for the program this December.
One hundred percent of the money raised goes to food.
Since the program’s third week, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who work at Chimes have been helping package the backpacks.
“They have taken pride [in it]. They know that it’s for hungry kids. They understand where the food is going and they know it’s great,” Nagel said of the Chimes employees.
The program has several regular volunteers these days, including sisters-in-law Leslie Monfred and Margery Braver. Monfred connected with Nagel in the fall at a luncheon that benefited the backpacks program. At the time, Nagel had a broken leg and therefore wasn’t going to be able to deliver backpacks for a couple of weeks.
“I said, ‘That’s unacceptable, tell me what to do,’” Monfred recalled. She and Braver, who ensured the backpacks were delivered when Nagel couldn’t, have been involved ever since.
Monfred sees this type of work as the responsibility of the Jewish people. For her, simply thinking about how tough one day of fasting can be on Yom Kippur motivates her.
“It’s really our responsibility as Jews to do what we can to make sure people don’t go hungry,” she said.
Nagel, who delivered meals with Meals on Wheels for 35 years, hopes her organization evolves to a similar delivery model. While a generous grant from the Gulton Foundation will go to great lengths to help the program, Nagel is actively fundraising for the organization.
“Our goal is next September to be in a situation where we’re doing 100 backpacks which serve anywhere from 100 to 500 [kids] in a facility,” Nagel said. “If we ever get to 500 [backpacks], we’d be serving 2,000 kids a week. It’s ambitious, but it’s doable. It will happen.”
To donate, visit gofundme.com/ungpjs or send a check made out to Weekend Backpacks to Miriam Lodge, 7310 Park Heights Ave., Baltimore, Md. 21208.