Blessings in a backpack

When Jan and Larry Nash lost their 37-year-old son two years ago in a car accident, they decided to take their grief and turn it into something positive.

Snowbirds from Michigan, the Nashs spend most of their time volunteering at food pantries or cooking meals for the homeless.

The Nashs carry on that generosity every Wednesday when they join their fellow church members at St. Andrews Episcopal Church on Deltona Boulevard, filling backpacks with food for local children as part of the Blessings in a Backpack program.

Funded through the local, nonprofit organization People Helping People, Blessings in a Backpack is a national program that feeds elementary school children who qualify for free or reduced meals and have little to no food on the weekends.

Jan Nash said volunteering with the program is a way to say thank you to those who lent a helping hand to her son, who was an Alaskan fisherman and sometimes didn’t know when his next meal would be.

“We wanted to help someone else in need,” she said. “It’s nice to know there are people out there helping others.”

Coordinator Maureen Follansbee said the program, which is based in Tennessee, started in September with Spring Hill Elementary School, feeding 50 children each weekend.

“These are children that go home with little to nothing to eat,” she said.

Guidance counselors at each school identify the children most at risk, those living with parents or family members who are on a limited income, disabled, unemployed or facing home foreclosures.

Students pick up the backpacks every Friday afternoon and return them Monday morning to be restocked.

Each child receives two drinks, two breakfast items, one meat, one entrée, one fruit and one snack.

The program also sends home extra food for siblings under the age of 18 who also live in the homes.

Spring Hill Elementary School guidance counselor Julio Cruz said he has seen a significant improvement in the children’s performance.

“One thing I immediately saw right away with them is they are a lot happier to come to school,” he said. “Also, I have seen in terms of behavior it has really lessened their stress. It has really helped them focus on academics rather than what’s going on at home.”

Follansbee, who has been volunteering with People Helping People for the past two years, said the program runs successfully with teamwork and help from sponsors and volunteers like the members of St. Andrews.

The main branch in Tennessee supplies the backpacks, People Helping People purchases the food and volunteers pack the bags each week.

Just $80 feeds one child for the school year.

People Helping People plans to expand the program to another elementary school every year. This fall 50 students at Deltona Elementary will be receiving backpacks with help from the Sisterhood at Temple Beth David Jewish Center in Spring Hill.

“People Helping People has a board that is so eager about feeding the people of Hernando County,” she said.

Follansbee also encourages donations from the community.

“It’s just heartbreaking to think there are children who have no food on the weekends. They deserve a break,” she said. “These kids are so appreciative. It really makes a difference to these kids.”

Reporter Hayley Mathis can be reached at 352-544-5225 or

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