MECHANICSBURG – For eastern Champaign County, a vital community service program appeared practically overnight.
Led by founder Maranda McDaniel, Blessing Bags collects and delivers food packages to nearly 100 primary school students every weekend in the Mechanicsburg and Triad school districts.
In July of 2015, McDaniel pitched the idea to church and school leaders. To her surprise, it was in full swing by October. She could barely keep up.
“It was so simple,” McDaniel said of the inception, adding she expected to meet with school administrators.
No such meetings occurred. Knowing well the need, both districts approved the idea after a few emails and phone calls.
“Everybody was completely on board,” she said with a laugh. “I was worried that I would have to go to a meeting or maybe it would be a little more difficult. But that was the easiest part. Then it really got scary, because we got the all-clear from administrators. And then I realized, ‘Oh gosh, now I really have to do this.’”
McDaniel mobilized her family and friends. Three women – Ann Bogard, Sonja Instine and McDaniel’s sister Mandy Alexander – are instrumental to the program. Two churches – the United Methodist Church in Mechanicsburg and the Middletown Church of God in North Lewisburg – sort items into packages. Each bag contains two breakfast, two lunch and four snack items.
“I can’t really take much credit for it because it’s such a coordinated effort,” McDaniel said, adding her daughter Maddy gladly helps when needed.
McDaniel delivers the bags to Mechanicsburg. Middletown Church of God delivers to Triad.
“It balances to around 80 to 100 kids a week that we help,” McDaniel said. “Basically it’s a teacher referral program. That’s why (food) doesn’t go home until October. School starts at the end of August, and I like to give the teachers three or four weeks to get to know their kids. They’re usually able to identify the ones who are hungry.”
Participation in a free and reduced lunch program is not required for joining the Blessing Bags list. McDaniel fears adding this restriction could bar hungry kids from getting the help they need.
Also keeping the program afloat are secretaries Margie Salyers, of Mechanicsburg, and Michelle McConnell, of Triad. Triad secretary Kathy Packman, now retired, helped launch the program in 2015. With counselors, secretaries help distribute food packages on Friday afternoons. Each pack is discretely placed with students’ belongings.
McDaniel is drawn to family and community. She works with her mother, Brenda Taylor, at the restaurant Taylor owns and manages on Main Street, The House Cafe. An active member of the United Methodist Church, McDaniel leads programs and attends services there with her husband, Cory, and daughters Maddy, Calie and Ali.
As a result of her backpack program and other selfless acts, McDaniel was named a Rising Star in 2016 by the Champaign County Department of Job and Family Services.
“It just makes me feel better to know that those kids do have something on the weekends, because it’s such a big necessity,” she said. “The thought of anyone not having it is sad.”
Blessing Bags gets its inspiration
The program arrived as modestly as it marches on. A youth leader at her church, McDaniel had a simple vision for an after-school program. The kids called it Tuesday Night Friends. She bonded with them, and a core of regulars remained committed from elementary school all the way through high school graduation.
McDaniel and her group volunteered regularly at Caring Kitchen, where they learned of the charity’s backpack program to feed students in Urbana.
“So I thought we could really utilize something like that in our area,” McDaniel said. “And I know there’s a need in our smaller communities even though some people don’t think about that or realize that.”
McDaniel still talks with members of that group, which helped bag items for the program during its inaugural year.
“They were the inspiration for sure,” she said. “Great kids.”
Before the schools got involved, McDaniel first spoke with her church’s mission committee. The United Methodist Women’s Group agreed to accept donations on behalf of the program.
“It started with just an idea … I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have any food, so I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” McDaniel said. “But I prayed a lot about it, and things started happening. Our church really helped out a lot that first year, and then the Legion found out about it, and they’ve donated so much money.”
American Legion Post 238 rallies and raffles for Blessing Bags
The community rallied around McDaniel’s mission. Word of its impact reached American Legion Post 238 in Mechanicsburg.
To date, the Legion has donated $6,000 to Blessing Bags, becoming its main donor. The group’s recent ticket raffle netted $1,600, all going directly to the backpack program. But perhaps the Legion’s most popular draw is its monthly card tournament, which also benefits Blessing Bags.
The Legion has made a singular mission of serving the Mechanicsburg community, said David Cordle Jr. of the Post 238 Squadron, adding the group has supported youth sports teams, an annual Easter egg hunt, a monthly meal program and countless worthy causes.
“We’ve been able to, through a lot of generosity, fund a lot of things,” he said.
Cordle had high praise for McDaniel, learning of her work during the Legion’s meal program at the United Methodist Church last year.
“To see what they’ve done and how far they’ve come, it’s unfathomable what’s happened there,” he said.
Post 238 divides its year into four quarters. Each quarter turns the focus to a different set of causes to support. Blessing Bags is now the focus of two of those quarters, said Cordle.
Post 238 is just one in a network of helpers. A host of partners have boosted Blessing Bags at various times. Middletown Church of God, Church of Our Savior in Mechanicsburg, PTAs and student-led organizations have made donations or contributions.
McDaniel targets the healthiest foods that her funding will allow. When the program receives more funds than expected, her options expand.
“Nutritional is expensive, unfortunately,” McDaniel said. “That allows us to buy some of the healthier things for them.”
McDaniel leaves notes with students before winter and summer vacations urging parents to contact her if more assistance is needed during these extended breaks.
Sometimes, she is able to send referrals to other programs to help during these times. This Christmas, the Triad Student Council used McDaniel’s referral list for its food drive. Meanwhile in Mechanicsburg, the Mothers Memorial Circle coordinated with Blessing Bags to identify those needing food and toys this Christmas in its service area.
To learn more about Blessing Bags, visit Facebook at “Blessing Bags” or send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Craig Shirk is a regular contributor to this newspaper.