Some of Kryste Wallen’s favorite moments on the job are, in a sense, some of the most heartbreaking. As the executive director of Blessings in a Backpack in Fort Wayne, she sees how deeply this community is affected by food insecurity.
Wallen oversees the program, which provides a bag full of food for local students to take home for the weekend. She says the need is greater than most people realize.
“There’s a 70 percent need in the city and we only serve about 5 percent of it,” says Wallen.
For 38 weeks out of the year, Blessings in a Backpack hands out food to more than 2,000 elementary students who attend Fort Wayne Community Schools. Those who receive a free or reduced-price lunch at school may not have access to food on the weekends. That makes it difficult for them to return to class Monday morning focused and ready to learn.
Making sure that things run smoothly is a huge undertaking. The food is purchased at cost through Parkview Health, where Parkview volunteers sort it. Volunteers from AMO then pick it up and deliver it to the five schools benefitting from the program. Once at the schools, other groups of volunteers meet weekly to pack the food and deliver it to the children’s classrooms. The bags contain things that are cost effective yet nutritious, like oatmeal, granola bars and soup.
“The children aren’t huge fans of soup, though,” Wallen laughs. “So this year we made a change and gave them some macaroni and cheese. I’ve gotten some positive reviews from them on that.”
With a lean budget and only one paid staff member, Wallen says they rely on churches, corporations, other nonprofits and generous individuals to make it all possible. Her favorite moments are the ones in which she can see the impact for herself.
“I’ve been very fortunate to see it firsthand. Because we rely on volunteers to pack, sometimes a change in the packing schedule leaves us shorthanded. When that happens, one of my favorite things to do for Blessings is work with my daughter and other backup help. We join together, packing bags to ensure the children get their food. If there are children still at school, sometimes they’ll ask, ‘Can we help?’ It’s nice to see how excited they are to help and be involved and to have that blessing,” said Wallen.
That blessing comes at a price, though. The budget per student is about $3 a week, which means in 2019, food costs alone will run close to $250,000. Since Fort Wayne’s organization doesn’t fall under the national designation, it’s supported solely though fundraisers and grants.
The largest fundraiser each year is a black-tie event at Sycamore Hills Golf Club, where a well-known celebrity chef prepares a gourmet meal for guests.
“The dinner is a great event and really is a high-funding event, but it also has a high price-point, which alienates a large section of the population that would be willing to support us but can’t at that level,” explains Wallen. “So I came up with a field day event called the We Will Feed Them Field Day and we had the first ever one last year at Parkview Field. It’s a mix of mental and physical challenges where teams compete for medals and bragging rights. We made almost $20,000 the first year! We now have brewing excitement from potential teams to compete at the event this year. We plan to make this fundraiser bigger and better.”
Occasionally, other groups want to get involved but can’t attend the fundraisers. That was the case recently with some local Girl Scouts who donated 4,000 granola bars. Their contribution meant each student got two extra granola bars to take home that week.
Donations like that can be tricky logistically, but Wallen says people who want to help should contact them at blessingsindiana.org to come up with a plan.
Organizing it all is rewarding, but Wallen says the best experiences come when she sees the faces of the children who receive the food each week.
“It just really reinforces the need and what a difference it makes. When they’re excited to get an extra breakfast or they say, ‘We really love this macaroni and cheese,’ you can tell that it is just the most pure gratitude that you’ve ever seen. It allows them to go home and not face 65 hours of hunger.”
General Manager: Kryste Wallen, executive director
Address: 111 E. Wayne St. Suite 555 Fort Wayne, Indiana 46802