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Backpack program keeps hunger at bay

  • Oct 21, 2013
  • Shannon Nickinson
Need knows no geographic boundary. No one knows this better than Karen Barber, director of federal programs for Santa Rosa School District.

Last year she helped 1,703 homeless children throughout the county. That figure includes students at all grade levels in every Santa Rosa community.

Some live in motels with their families, share space in the homes of family or friends until they outwear their welcome, some in cars or parks or shelters.

This year Barber has $170,000 in grant money, which pays for among other things, three 12-month employees who act like case-managers, helping these children get the services they need.

Also on Barber’s team is a nurse, who can help the children get healthcare, immunizations, dental work and the like coordinating through the Santa Rosa County Health Department.

For age-appropriate kids, the team can offer help navigating career or further education at the University of West Florida or Pensacola State College.

Barber is concerned about what she says is a small, but growing segment of that population. Of those 1,703 children, 155 are what are called unaccompanied homeless youth — teenagers who all on their own.

Why aren’t they in foster care?

“If (the Florida Department of Children and Families) has to take a child, they will take youngest children first because they have to triage” and take the most vulnerable children first, Barber says. Some of them are 16- and 17-year-olds who remove themselves from a dysfunctional house.

They couch-surf with friends, sleep in parks or wherever they can. So far this school year there are about 33 students in the Backpacks For Teens program, which began three years ago.

The first two years of the program, Barber and her colleagues basically shopped for the children themselves, and then DeDe FLounlacker, executive director of Manna Food Pantries, heard Barber talk about the effort.

Flounlacker offered to design nutritionally balanced meals for the kids and pack them if Barber and her staff would register the kids and distribute the backpacks.

It costs Manna about $9 a weekend to fill the backpack and Flounlacker says she has been able to get sponsors to cover their costs.

They come from every high school in the county, says Barber, “even from Gulf Breeze and Navarre.”

Some come from single-parent who go to jail. For some, mom chooses a new boyfriend who isn’t crazy about kids over her child. For others, the parents have moved and said you can’t come with us.

Last year, Barber recalls a senior whose mom picked a boyfriend over him. The boy was hearing impaired and badly needed dental work — he had eaten only on one side of his mouth for five years because of his teeth.

Barber matched this young man with a host family in Navarre. Families Count got him hearing aids, and he is now getting cochlear implants with Vocational Rehab. The couple gave him a bike and got him a job at the Winn-Dixie in Navarre and now he is enrolled at Pensacola State.

It is a long way around for a happy ending, but Barber says the students teach her that the journey is worth it.

“That these children have the discipline to even say, ‘I’m going to stay in school’ is amazing,” she says.


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