Bill Cole

St. Mark United Methodist Church member Bill Cole discusses the Snack Pack program whereby area churches and organizations team with Cleburne ISD to address student hunger issues.

The reality, former Cleburne ISD Principal Ben Oefinger said, is that many Cleburne residents well off, or at least getting by, remain unaware of the food challenges many Cleburne students face daily.

To that end, Oefinger discussed the Snack Sack program during Friday’s monthly meeting of Pinnacle Club 50. The club consists of Cleburne and Johnson County businessmen and women and other community leaders who gather monthly for fellowship and updates on community happenings.

Area churches and organizations work hand in hand to administer the Snack Sack program, which two Cleburne doctors established in 2006.

A comment in 2005 from Dr. Susi Whitworth’s then school-aged daughter sparked the idea, Oefinger said.

“Susi had picked her daughter up from school and her daughter expressed concern about a friend of hers who didn’t have food to eat when she got home,” Oefinger said. “The girl wasn’t homeless, but there wasn’t enough money for food in her house. 

“Susi, bless her heart, had sense enough to follow up on that and talk to [her father, Dr. Jim Johnson] and together they came up with the idea of the Snack Sack program. They worked out the details, went to the schools and the schools picked up on it. Then they started looking for volunteers to buy food to put together in packs and distribute to children in schools who are hungry.”

The program, so far as Oefinger knows, is unique to Cleburne.

“There are free breakfast and lunch programs for kids in this position during the school day,” Oefinger said. “But during the weekend there is little or nothing at home for them. It’s root, hog or die until Monday when they go back to school.”

Things are different and the challenges are huge, Oefinger said, even for a town Cleburne’s size.

“Cleburne is not quite the same town it was when we grew up,” Oefinger said. “There are kids in our schools who don’t have a place to live. Over half of marriages today end in divorce so you have a lot of children living with a single parent.

“There’s a lot of jobs out there that pay enough maybe to get a place to live, make a cheap car payment maybe but you run out of money pretty quick and there are kids going hungry in Cleburne.”

St. Mark United Methodist Church, Oefinger’s church, got the ball rolling by volunteering soon to be joined by other area churches and organizations. Every Cleburne school participates at every grade level.

St. Mark volunteers put Snack Sacks together for Cooke Elementary School students, which TEAM School students deliver.

“We make 96 a week for Cooke,” Oefinger said. “So 96 kids have been identified as being on the verge of going hungry every week. [First United Methodist Church] puts 110 together each week for Santa Fe Elementary. And that’s not counting the other churches and groups involved and the schools they do. So we’re not talking just 15 or 20 kids in need here.”

Each pack consists of nutritious foods such as apple sauce cups, fruit cups, cheese and peanut butter crackers, oatmeal packets, Vienna sausages, raisins and granola bars.

Each pack totals 1,560 calories, said retired dietician Sam Samuel, also a member of St. Mark.

Bill Cole, another St. Mark member involved in the program said the food comes from Wal-Mart and H-E-B Grocery store.

“On the Monday of the week before we get the packs together for a two week supply of food because we don’t have storage for more than that,” Cole said. “Then the packs are delivered each Thursday to the schools. The cost comes out to about $3.35 per pack, which amounts to about $10,000 a year for our church.”

That $10,000 only covers St. Mark’s contribution to the cause, Oefinger and Cole said, not the costs for other participating churches and organizations.

Nor is the cost a church budgeted item.

“We depend on donations and we’ve had a few small grants through the years,” Oefinger said. “Sales from our pumpkin patch each year also help pay for this and our other ministries.”

Distribution of the snack packs is discrete, Oefinger said.

“You don’t just walk in and start handing these things out because you don’t want to embarrass the kids,” Oefinger said. “The school counselors have a list and, when the kids are at recess or lunch, they place it in the backpacks of the kids.”

Amber Witte, a member of First United Methodist Church, said the Snack Sack program benefits all involved.

“Our children’s and youth ministry help put the packs together,” Witte said. “So it not only helps the kids who get the packs but it’s also teaching our children to be the hands and feet of Christ.”

Oefinger said he wondered through the years whether the program makes a difference.

“The problem when you deal with the church is that the left hand is not supposed to know what the right hand is doing,” Oefinger said. “So we’re not supposed to be putting a survey in there asking if they liked the food or if they’re glad we’re doing this.”

A TEAM School student allayed such fears.

“She was part of the pick up crew who came by the church one day,” Oefinger said. “She mentioned that she got snack packs when she was in elementary school and said they helped a great deal.” 

Cleburne businessman Vance Castles, who is also involved with the Cleburne Education Foundation, assured Oefinger that the program makes a difference.

“Usage by the kids is monitored by the schools and it is a successful program,” Castles said. “Outside of Marti, Gerard and Coleman elementary schools in our district it’s about 85 percent free or reduced lunches so there is a need.”

The purpose of Friday’s presentation was more informational than solicitation, Oefinger said.

“We’re just not sure how many are aware this program is even going on,” Oefinger said. “I don’t know of any other communities that have it and, like I said, this was developed by a couple of Cleburne people and it’s handled by Cleburne churches and organizations. On the other hand, if, at the end of the month, you look in your pocket and you’ve got an extra $50 or whatever this would be a very good place to make a donation. I don’t know very many things that are more important than feeding a hungry child.”

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