The backpacks hang, waiting in student lockers in the morning, then go home filled with nourishing food for the weekend.
They are vehicles for feeding children healthy meals, delivered through the three-year-old Byron Center extension of Hand2Hand Ministries. The program, started in 2008 by Fair Haven Ministries of Hudsonville, addresses a growing problem of poverty and hunger in the suburbs. (The concept is similar to that of the Grand Rapids-based Kids Food Basket, which delivers daily sack suppers to nearly 5,000 students.)
Jodi Joseph, wife of Byron Center High School Principal Scott Joseph, started Hand2Hand in Byron Center to meet the needs of families in the district. Now operating out of Byron Community Ministries, Jodi Joseph said she was inspired through the church her family attends, South Harbor Church, part of Fair Haven Ministries.
Since its inception, the program has grown to serve 1,900 students in 53 schools and 17 districts, said Cheri Honderd, Hand2Hand founder and director. Kent County schools served through Hand2Hand and its partnerships include buildings in Byron Center Public Schools, Grandville Public Schools, Thornapple Kellogg Schools, and Kentwood Public Schools.
Hand2Hand also provides snacks for teachers to provide for students and for some after-school programs. Volunteers from several area churches participate, including Rush Creek Bible Church and Corinth Reformed Church.
Jodi Joseph, who moved from Hudsonville to Byron Center three years ago, said she wanted to find a volunteer program with opportunities to involve her family, including children, Madelyn, 10, and Mason, 7. She started the program through a partnership with Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank, who donated the food supplies, to serve 31 students at Marshall Elementary School.
‘A safety net’
Since then, its impact in Byron Center has expanded to include a total of 123 students. The goal is to eventually serve the high school.
“I could not be more appreciative and thankful for the efforts of the Hand2Hand organization that provides a ‘safety net’ for some of our families in need of help,” said Byron Center Superintendent Dan Takens. “The Hand2Hand partnership with BCPS is great example of a community that values their children so much that we consider it a privilege to help those in need.”
Having outgrown a small space at church, operations were moved to Byron Center Ministries. Joseph, motivated by her passion for the program, left her corporate sales job to focus on Hand2Hand and her family. During the school year, 12-15 volunteers gather Tuesday evenings to pack backpacks with breakfast items, water bottles, lunch items, snacks and starter dinner kits. They also include information about local community resources and use specially decorated birthday bags for student birthdays.
“We are always connecting families with resources in Byron Center,” she said.
Open to all
While 27.1 percent of Byron Center students come from households with income levels that qualify for free or reduced lunch, all school families are sent home a letter inquiring if they would like to receive the food. “It’s just to help people who are struggling,” she said. “We really want to love on our kids.”
Hand2Hand founder and director Cheri Honderd, said people interested in bringing the program to a school can contact her at (616) 662-2100, ext. 3047.