Highlander Helpers program strives to assure no child goes hungry

Cheryl Outland and Katherine Kammer love kids.

"When I heard about this club, I thought it would be a great way for me to get involved," said Kammer, a Radford University junior from Bluefield.

Kammer is referring to Highlander Helpers, a university club whose members visit a local elementary school each week during the academic year to stuff backpacks with meals, snacks and drinks for children who may not otherwise get much food over the weekends.

Kammer, who is now vice president of the club, and Outland, the Highlander Helpers president, are persistent in their efforts to make sure no child at McHarg Elementary School in Radford is in need of food.

"Many of the children at McHarg Elementary School are on the free or reduced lunch program and they rely on getting their breakfast and lunch at school," explained Outland, a sophomore nursing major from Newport News. "And, on the weekends, many don’t have that. So, we go in and we make sure they have nutritious meals throughout the weekend. We make sure they get breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks."

Outland, Kammer and the numerous other members of Highlander Helpers are keeping alive the spirit of the club, which emerged from a 2009 class project in Teresa Dickens’ Highlanders in Action (COED 461) course.

"This program started as a service-learning component of the class and it evolved from there into a club to ensure the continuity of the program," Dickens said. In May, the Highlander Helpers Club received the Community Service Program Award at RU's annual Student Awards Ceremony.

Awards are a nice recognition of what they do, Outland said, but the priority remains staying focused on assuring no child goes hungry.

"The Highlander Helpers provide a local solution to a problem that plagues every community," said McHarg Elementary Guidance Counselor Pam Chitwood, who also noted the club last year began providing snacks for children to eat during school time. "The children love receiving their backpacks each week, and they appreciate having snacks to eat during the school day."

Each week, the Highlander Helpers gather in a trailer behind McHarg Elementary to pack the backpacks with delicious and nutritious food choices.

So, what goes in the backpacks?

"For breakfast, we put in a pack of oatmeal and a mini box of cereal. For lunch and dinner, we put two containers of Easy Mac and two containers of ravioli," Outland said. "For snacks, they get a granola bar, pudding, something sweet, two juice boxes, two fruit cups, two vegetables and applesauce."

But it’s not always that easy. There are some challenges.

"Some kids don’t have a microwave at home, so meals and snacks may be different," Outland said. "We get notified if they don’t have a microwave."

There’s also the concern of food allergies.

"Last semester, we had a little girl who was allergic to strawberries and her family did not have a microwave, so she was very challenging," said Outland, who proudly accepts the challenges.

Each backpack is tagged with the student’s name and important information, such as a list of food allergies. "We have blue for boys and pink for girls," Kammer said of the backpacks.

Challenges also arise when the school children forget to return their backpacks to the school. In that case, shopping bags are used as temporary replacements. Outland said BB&T donated many of the backpacks to the club.

Highlander Helpers pack approximately 15 backpacks per week, and they often rely on the generosity of donors during the numerous food drives the club organizes throughout the academic year.

"Those [food drives] usually bring in a lot of food, but it usually doesn’t last very long," Outland said. "It goes pretty quickly."

The club also relies on monetary donations and fundraisers so members can purchase food for the backpacks. In addition, "Radford City citizens have been very supportive throughout the years, contributing cash donations to purchase food," Dickens said.

There are numerous challenges, but Outland and Kammer are committed to their calling of helping kids meet their nutritional needs.

"I feel the need to help children," said Outland, who has younger siblings. "I feel someone needs to help them."

Kammer agreed.

"For many kids, if they don’t eat at school, they don’t eat at all," said the speech therapy major. "Without our club, they don’t get the proper foods. I’m glad we can do that for them."

Dec 2, 2014