Frank and Diane Elliott are passionate about giving children a loving home. The State College couple has nine kids, many of whom are adopted or have special needs.

During the last school year, their seven school-aged children enrolled in the YMCA of Centre County’s Backpack Weekend Food Program.

“Once a week we get these nice backpacks full of food for our kids,” Diane says. “It’s really been a help for a large family like ours.”

The program began in 2014 in the Philipsburg-Osceola Area School District with just 40 backpacks. There, 53% of students qualify for free or reduced lunches and teachers were reporting that students were coming to school on Monday saying that they did not have any food at home over the weekend. It quickly became clear that other school districts in the county were experiencing the same problem.

There’s no face to hunger. There’s no territory to hunger.

“If I had told someone ‘within three years, we’re going to be at 1,000 backpacks’ they would have looked at me like I should have been locked up somewhere,” says Mel Curtis, director of the Moshannon Valley YMCA and administrator of the backpack program.

But that’s exactly what happened as the program’s demand grew quickly.

Each week during the school year, backpacks filled with food for the weekend are distributed to students in each of Centre County’s five school districts.

Students receiving free or reduced price lunches are the main focus of the program, but, says Curtis, no child is turned away. Backpacks can also be provided for younger siblings who are not yet enrolled in school.

The kid-friendly menu includes rotating favorites like macaroni and cheese, soup, oatmeal, cereal, fruit, and pudding – often bought in bulk to get the best price. The foods are easy for kids to prepare themselves in case parents are at work during mealtimes.

Full backpacks are handed out on Fridays and are returned empty on Mondays. School administrators report that students who receive backpacks experience less absenteeism and are more attentive.

The program is also providing an important lesson to kids who volunteer to pack the backpacks, but do not receive them. Student volunteers do not know who relies on the backpacks, but know it could be their classmate or friend.

“They’re getting a life lesson out of this,” Curtis says.

The program recently expanded to the State College Area School District, where more than 10% of students receive free or reduced lunches.

“You can’t tell who’s hungry. You can walk down College Avenue in State College and pass 1,000 people and you’d never guess that any of those people are hungry,” Curtis says. “There’s no face to hunger. There’s no territory to hunger.”

As a whole, Centre County has a higher food insecurity rate than many nearby counties, including Blair, Clinton, and Clearfield.

Diane says her kids have really looked forward to getting their backpacks each Friday.

“Any time you can give people food and make it an easy process that’s convenient and that the kids are going to eat, that’s the best,” she says. “I’m so grateful to everyone who’s involved in this program.”

The Backpack Weekend Food Program has an annual budget of about $100,000, all of which is funded by grants and donations.

Centre Foundation supports this program and other YMCA programs through an endowment fund, the YMCA of Centre County Fund, and other granting programs. The YMCA participates in Centre Gives, raising $17,726 through it in 2016 and $21,895 in 2017. Grant money that went to the YMCA through Centre Gives, endowment funds, donor-advised fund grants, field-of-interest fund grants, and Centre PACT grants totaled $94,124 in 2016.