Little boy with a big black backpack, a guy with blond hair posing at a chalkboard, Back to school,

Blessings in a Backpack

This story was originally published on  West Virginia Executive

The teacher knew they were hungry. There were five little ones in her classroom whose families were struggling to make ends meet. These children were never dressed properly—never had the right clothes, coats or shoes. They could stand to have their little faces washed as well as their hands. The teacher knew their little bellies rumbled until they received their school breakfast, and they were always looking forward to lunch. When the time came for them to go home, little faces became drawn. She tried to provide a small something for them to take home to eat. It wasn’t much—an apple, some peanut butter crackers, a juice box. The teacher worried about her young students and the effect poverty was having on them. They were often tired, sick and worried, things no child should have to experience.

This true account was the foundation for the Elk River Backpack Blessings program. In 2012, the abovementioned teacher spoke to friends about the children in need, and from that conversation the program was born.

holli-packing-bags-002Elk River Backpack Blessings is housed at the Clendenin United Methodist Church. Each Thursday, volunteers assemble food bags for students in need in the surrounding schools, including H.E. White Elementary, Clendenin Elementary, Bridge Elementary, Pinch Elementary, Elk Center Elementary, Elkview Middle and Herbert Hoover High School. The food is sent home with students on Friday in an effort to sustain them over the weekend. In its first year, the program sent out 26 bags per week, and now, in 2016, it is sending out 194 bags per week. All of the food that is sent out is donated to the program.

“Backpack Blessings is a lifeline for our students living on the edge, and the fact that they live 72 hours without food is heartbreaking,” says Vanessa Brown, principal at Clendenin Elementary School. “That these students know that someone cares about their needs is life changing to their souls.”

The historic flooding in June 2016 brought a significant change to the area and the Backpack Blessings program. The flood affected everyone living along the Elk River, destroying two schools and countless churches, clinics and homes. The Backpack Blessings food donations were wiped out, and the volunteers lost their entire stock and their church.

However, the small and mighty group would not give up—a true testament to their West Virginia spirit. Within three days of the flood, Backpack Blessings had reestablished itself with the help of many generous donors. Mount Tabor United Methodist Church in Pinch, WV, opened its doors, giving the group a place to work. Many people called to offer labor, money, goods and prayers. Within the first three weeks of the flood, Backpack Blessings hand-delivered 1,000 bags of food directly to flood victims.sherri-delevers-bags-002

The group went on to provide 4,000 backpacks filled with school supplies and partnered with the United Way to help provide 400 pairs of socks and additional clothing for those children who lost everything. They donated complete sets of books to flooded schools and replaced classroom materials for teachers in need. They also handed out Fiesta dinnerware; sent boxes loaded with food and personal hygiene items to Clay County and the Clendenin area; provided 200 electric pencil sharpeners to flooded schools; gave out more than $2,000 in gift cards and sponsored a blanket drive and a heater drive.

While the group has certainly gone above and beyond the call of duty for a small, community organization, they are far from finished. They also put together a free Christmas dinner in the old Clendenin Middle School gym, which was held on Friday, December 23.

The group is motivated by the words of John Wesley, a theologian whose principles are the foundation of the Methodist denomination. “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.”

Backpack Blessings plans to continue providing for children and families along the Elk River. The need is great, but the desire to improve the community is greater. While the work is difficult, the results are worth the effort.


debiAbout the Author

Debi O’Dell is a retired teacher from Kanawha County, WV, who currently resides in Elkview. She is the founder and director of the Elk River Backpack Blessings program. She may be reached at or