Motivated to Serve

(PHOTO BY ELLIE BOGUE)

A backpack full of blessings

Family helps fill empty stomachs

By Bonnie Blackburn
On any given weekend, thousands of children in Allen County look into the cupboard to find only an empty space.

Michael Gouloff and wife Gretchen, with the help of daughters Alexandra and Anya, aim to fill that void through their charity, Blessings in a Backpack. Each Friday, they and many other volunteers hand out grocery bags filled with ramen noodles, rice, oatmeal, cheese crackers and juice boxes — enough nonperishable food to feed school children through the weekend when school breakfasts and lunches those children normally receive aren’t available. Once or twice a month, a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread accompany those bags, tucked into donated backpacks that help the children carry their food home. Through the national Blessings in a Backpack program, more than 59,000 children are fed at nearly 400 schools nationwide.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Gouloff, chairman and CEO of the architectural firm SchenkelShultz. “This is America. How is it possible that kids don’t have enough food to eat?”

The Gouloffs first heard of the national Blessings in a Backpack program after they volunteered to help feed families in New Orleans who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. The charity was founded by a schoolteacher in Louisville, Ky., who realized students couldn’t succeed if they had empty bellies. Gouloff called Melanie Hall, public affairs director at Fort Wayne Community Schools, to see if childhood hunger was a problem in Fort Wayne.

It was — and is. More than 62 percent of students attending FWCS schools have families so poor they qualify for free or reduced lunch. That translates to nearly 20,000 children who are — as the statisticians put it — “food insecure.”

“We’re trying to break the cycle of poverty,” Gouloff said. “Education is everything in life. By helping feed the child, you help them learn. You can’t learn if you are hungry.”

The local charity started in 2007, with Gouloff and his wife footing the $20,000 bill for a six-week trial at Adams Elementary School. Now in its fifth year, the Fort Wayne branch of Blessings in a Backpack feeds 1,500 children each Friday at Abbett, Adams, Fairfield and South Wayne elementary schools. The grocery chain Meijer donates the food at cost and delivers it on pallets to volunteers at each school, who then pack each bag and hand them out to the children. It takes $2.20 to feed one child for two days.

The program has expanded each year, thanks to the help of big-name celebrity chefs like Cat Cora, Michael Symon,
Charlie Trotter, Rick Bayless and Marcus Samuelsson who have come to Fort Wayne to cook for an annual fundraiser each summer. Gouloff said he expects his daughters to take over the running of the program in several years.

“We want a better America,” Gouloff said. “A lot of us have good lives, but a lot of us don’t. If every person in America had the ability to help someone out one day a week, one week a year, we’d have random acts of kindness all over. We can’t fix every problem in the world, but we can feed kids in Fort Wayne.

“This is the best work I’ve ever done in my life.”

Posted: Thu, 08/30/2012 - 10:37 am
Last updated: Tue, 12/04/2012 - 2:10 pm