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Cindy Novachich, head of the Weekend Snack Pack Program, prepares snack packs Thursday in Hughes Hall on the western side of Dakota Wesleyan University’s campus in Mitchell. (Chris Mueller/The Daily Republic)

United Way fundraising deadline nears

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Cindy Novachich and the Weekend Snack Pack program have a simple mission — feeding hungry children.

The program, a nonprofit run entirely by volunteers, including Novachich, provides hundreds of underprivileged children in Mitchell with packages of easy-to-prepare snacks for the weekend.

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“A lot of kids count on it,” Novachich said. “That’s their snack for the week.”

The Weekend Snack Pack program is one of 29 agencies supported in part by the Mitchell United Way, which this year is trying to raise $455,000. That’s $15,000 more than last year’s fundraising goal. The deadline to contribute is Friday, and the goal is 35 percent achieved, with numerous business donation packets still streaming in.

Give to the Mitchell United Way by visiting mitchellunitedway.org, or by filling out a pledge card and signing up for a payroll deduction, direct payment, or direct billing. Contributions can also be mailed to P.O. Box 729, Mitchell, S.D., 57301, or dropped off at 417 N. Main St., Suite 103, in Mitchell.

Last year, the Weekend Snack Pack program gave away more than $50,000 worth of food to children in Mitchell, according to Novachich, who heads the program.

This year, approximately 340 students at the Mitchell School District’s three public elementary schools and at John Paul II Elementary, a private Catholic school in west Mitchell, have already enrolled in the Weekend Snack Pack program, along with 50 students at Mitchell High School.

Longfellow Elementary Principal Karen Whitney said many of her school’s students have come to depend on the Weekend Snack Pack program, and look forward to receiving their pack each week.

Nearly 55 percent of students at Longfellow are economically disadvantaged, compared to about 40 percent at L.B. Williams Elementary and about 35 percent at Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary, according to reports by the South Dakota Department of Education.

“It is a little work,” Whitney said, referring to the school’s role in distributing the snack packs. “but it’s so worth it because we know that our kids need it.”

Whitney is more saddened than surprised, she said, by how many of her school’s students rely on the program.

“But I’m just so grateful that the community has come together to help those kids and those families that really need it,” Whitney said.

To qualify for the program, students must be eligible for free or reduced lunches through the National School Lunch Program and must have their parents’ permission. For the 2012-13 school year, 44 percent of the district’s elementary students, 35 percent of middle school students and 23 percent of high school students qualified for free or reduced lunches.

To qualify for reduced-price lunches, students must be from a household with an annual income that is up to 185 percent of the federal government’s poverty threshold. For free lunches, the income cutoff is 130 percent of the poverty level.

Hunger, even if it goes unnoticed by the average person, is a real problem for many people, especially children, Novachich said.

“I know families who got by last year because of Weekend Snack Pack,” she said.

The program relies primarily on one-time donations of money or food, and a few regular monetary contributions from local businesses, Novachich said. Any money donated goes directly toward purchasing food, and nothing else.

“Times are hard for a lot of people,” she said. “We could sure use donations right now.”

On Thursday, a small group of volunteers gathered in an old biology lab in Hughes Hall, on the western side of Dakota Wesleyan University’s campus, to put together snack packs. The packs typically include an entrée, fruit, grain and two other food items.

The Weekend Snack Pack program moved to DWU’s campus earlier this year. For the first three years, Novachich ran the program out of her home in Mitchell.

“We pretty much gave two rooms of our house to the program,” she said.

With a larger space at DWU with shelving and cupboards, the program has been able to buy and store more food at once. Food items can be donated in labeled bins placed outside DWU’s Hughes Hall, at 1200 W. University Ave., or at Novachich’s home, at 609 E. First Ave.

With the Weekend Snack Pack program, Novachich believes she has found her life’s purpose.

“I believe that every kid should be able to have food that’s their own,” she said. “It gives them hope and a meal.”

Give to United Way

Give to the Mitchell United Way by visiting mitchellunitedway.org, or by filling out a pledge card and signing up for a payroll deduction, direct payment or direct billing. Contributions can also be mailed to P.O. Box 729, Mitchell, S.D., 57301, or dropped off at 417 N. Main St., Suite 103, in Mitchell.

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