HOUGHTON - After a conversation with her sister who winters in Arizona, Laurel Maki got an idea to start a program which she thought would benefit some local children who may not be getting enough to eat on the weekends.
"She found out about a backpack program in Phoenix (Ariz.) schools," Maki said.
The Phoenix program involves putting food into backpacks so students in need could easily carry the food home, Maki said, and her sister suggested she start something similar locally.
Daily Mining Gazette/Kurt Hauglie
From left, Melissa Maki, Amy Zawada and Laurel Maki load up plastic bags of food for their 31 Backpacks, Inc. program, which provides food for the weekends for students at the Public Schools of Calumet, Laurium & Keweenaw who otherwise might not have enough to eat. Looking on is Zawada’s 3-year-old daughter, Ruby.
"I said OK," she said.
What she came up with, Maki said, is now called 31 Backpacks, Inc. The company is expected to get its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status sometime this coming week.
"We started last spring asking for donations of backpacks," she said.
It took months to get the backpacks, Maki said.
Besides herself, Maki said her daughter, Melissa Maki, and friend Amy Zadawa form the core of 31 Backpacks, Inc., which puts food purchased mostly at Tadych's Econo Foods into plastic bags. Those bags are taken to the Public Schools of Calumet, Laurium & Keweenaw to be placed into backpacks for the students identified as needing some assistance. Currently, 67 percent of C-L-K students qualify for the federal free or reduced-cost lunch program.
The name for the company came about after Laurel Maki received an email from C-L-K Superintendent Darryl Pierce about how many children currently need help in the school district.
"He wrote back, '31 backpacks,'" she said.
The project started at the beginning of October, Laurel Maki said, and currently, the group is helping 43 students at C-L-K, but she expects that number to increase.
"They haven't identified any of the high school students," she said.
Zadawa said from what they've heard, the program is appreciated by students at C-L-K.
"They're very happy," she said.
Laurel Maki said the food they take home is really helping the children.
"They're not dreading weekends anymore," she said. "(Before), they didn't know if they were going to have enough food for the weekend."
Zadawa said much thought is given to putting the bags of food together.
"We want to make it the most nutritious as possible," she said.
Zadawa said word about the backpack program is getting out into the Copper Country.
"There's been interest from other school districts for their areas," she said.
Laurel Maki said as soon as the company's financial situation is stabilized, the next school district expected to be part of 31 Backpacks, Inc. is Lake Linden-Hubbell.
Melissa Maki said the company will take donations of money for the program.
"We actually have a drop box on the front of the Century 21 (North Country Agency) building," she said.
Checks should be made out to 31 Backpacks, Inc. They can also be mailed to 1100 Century Way, Suite C, Houghton, MI 49931, attention Laurel Hoganson Maki.
Laurel Maki said another regular volunteer for the program is Mary Lou Duron, and more volunteer help is needed to help pack and shop.
To volunteer or donate fresh produce, call Laurel Maki at 231-1472 to find out what is needed.
Melissa Maki can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laurel Maki said Econo Foods is helping the program by giving them 1 percent back on receipts from the store, so donations of receipts from the store will help 31 Backpacks, Inc. The company also gets 5 cents for each of Our Family products bar codes they get, but they need a minimum of 500 to turn in.
Laurel Maki said once the plastic-bagged food gets to the schools, they don't know where it goes, and that's intentional to help protect the children's anonymity.
"We have no idea who these children are and why the situation is the way it is," she said. "No child should go to bed hungry."