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Home Feature Stories Special Reports Food Backpacks in Clark County

Food Backpacks in Clark County

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Photos: Audrey ChengWendy was a typical student at John S. Park Elementary, a school not far from the glittering lights of the Las Vegas Strip. As a special needs child, Wendy suffered from a listening disability and exhibited poor verbal and motor skill development. Unfortunately she, and many like her, also experienced hunger at home.

Although Las Vegas is a relatively wealthy city due to its tourism industry, one out of eight families struggles to satisfy basic dietary needs. In Clark County public schools, fifty-five percent of students have applied for reduced-cost or free school lunches. This situation came to the attention of Tzu Chi after Hurricane Katrina when many former New Orleans residents sought refuge in Las Vegas. Although their shortterm needs were addressed, many long-term problems, such as food security, had not yet been resolved. While displaced children received breakfast and lunch at school each day, they often had nothing to eat on weekends. Learning this, Tzu Chi volunteers decided to distribute backpacks full of food each Friday.

In August 2006, several volunteers began participating in weekly distributions held by Corps of Compassion at Whitney Elementary School. A backpack was filled with food each Thursday for students in need, and then distributed to them on Friday. For children who had brothers and sisters not covered by the program, additional food was provided. After a few weeks of learning from Corps of Compassion, Tzu Chi volunteers applied to the school board to begin their own program at John S. Park Elementary. In September 2006, Tzu Chi volunteers began delivering backpacks to eighty-two children there.

After six years of dedicated work, the number of families has now expanded to 110. In addition, many good relationships have developed between Tzu Chi volunteers, school staff, and students. Wendy, for example, received a backpack for three years. During that time, Tzu Chi volunteers never saw her smile or talk. Very unexpectedly, one day she blurted out a single "thank you" to the volunteers, touching them deeply.

Another girl named Jordan went through a similar transformation. She enrolled in John S. Park Elementary in September 2011 and started receiving a backpack. Her older brothers had participated before graduating, so she had previously been one of the hidden recipients helped by siblings' backpacks. After a semester, her mother sent a note to volunteers indicating that the family’s economic situation had improved and the gift could go to another family.

In 2012, when volunteers started a small bamboo bank donation program for students to collect spare change to donate during the backpack distribution, they were surprised to see Jordan approach them with a large coffee can in her arms. They were passionately moved to learn that she and her brothers had collected their spare pennies to give something back for the help they had received.

Despite the success so far, the need in Clark County is still vast. According to an investigation by the Clark County Board of Education, nearly twelve hundred students at fifteen schools could still benefit from the backpack program. Though Tzu Chi volunteers have given out twenty-four thousand backpacks since 2006, the need is still growing.

Awareness leads to action; action leads to guiding and inspiring others.
Jing Si Aphorism by Dharma Master Cheng Yen

Story taken from USA Journal No. 34, Winter 2012