Making a difference for kids

FOLLANSBEE -There are a growing number of local families at the poverty level and that’s why the Follansbee Chamber of Commerce and several local groups, churches and schools plan to help children in need as part of Make a Difference Day, said Chamber President Tony Paesano.

Chamber members and representatives of several groups gathered at Vito’s 2 Restaurant Tuesday to discuss their plans for the occasion, which is Oct. 26.

The event is slated for the fourth Saturday of October each year by USA Weekend to encourage everyone to participate in community service projects large and small. The chamber and Follansbee area groups have participated in each of its 23 years.

Paesano said 53 percent of Brooke County students now are eligible for free or reduced price breakfasts and lunches and three Brooke County schools are eligible for a federal program that provides free breakfasts and lunches for all of their pupils.

To qualify for the program, more than 40 percent of a school’s pupils must be eligible for the free meals.

Paesano noted concerns about children being hungry outside school hours have led churches and other groups to establish grassroots backpack programs, in which children are sent home each weekend with backpacks filled with non-perishable food donated by community members.

He added after-school programs at Brooke High School and Follansbee Middle School provide to youth free dinners prepared by C.H.A.N.G.E. Inc. with federal funds.

Janet Benzo, a member of St. Anthony Catholic Church, said the church’s Friday Friends backpack program provides food to about 23 children at Jefferson Primary School. She said the cost for food for each backpack can range from $10 to $20, depending on whether it’s a two-day or holiday weekend.

Benzo said when school resumed recently, a girl at the school asked if she would be getting “angel food” again.

Paesano presented a $2,000 donation from Wheeling-Nisshin Inc. to Benzo for the backpack program.

Attorney Jason Cuomo of the Cuomo & Cuomo Law Office also was on hand to present a $1,000 donation for the Follansbee R.E.A.C.H. Program food pantry.

Jeanne Ferrell, a Brooke County schoolteacher, reported on Make a Difference Day activities at Brooke High School on behalf of Principal Toni Shute. She said the school’s homerooms have been challenged to raise $150 each for eyeglasses and vision services for senior citizens in need.

Ferrell said the school also will be collecting non-perishable food in October and November for the Follansbee R.E.A.C.H. Program, adding the school collected more than 3,000 food items last year for the cause.

Sharon McCauley, a volunteer with the food pantry, said it serves 20 to 25 families each month.

Denise Spensky, president of the Brooke County Council PTA, which oversees the clothes closet, said the clothes closet welcomes such donations because it can’t distribute used underwear or socks to the many children it serves. But she added donations of new or gently used children’s clothing, coats and shoes are welcome and may be brought to a locked drop-off box established at the rear of the clothes closet’s headquarters at Pleasant Avenue and 26th Street.

Spensky said children bused quietly to the clothes closet during a school day arrive with enthusiasm.

“These kids are excited, believe me. You’re giving them a coat and you’d think you were giving them a car,” she said.

Also attending the meeting were Angela Kocher, executive director of the Brooke-Hancock-Ohio-Marshall Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, and Rhonda Stubbs, executive director of A Child’s Place Court-Appointed Special Advocate program.

Kocher reported the program’s After-School Adventures Program is expanding from Follansbee to two additional sites in Wellsburg, thanks to the support of local churches. She said in addition to materials for crafts, the program always welcomes volunteers to work with the children.

Stubbs said her group trains volunteers to represent the interests of children involved in abuse and neglect cases in Brooke and Hancock counties, a number that has risen from 137 last year to 166 so far this year. She said people can help the nonprofit group in a variety of ways, from serving as advocates to helping with fundraisers.

Paesano said in addition to helping local groups centered around children, people can seek out a family in their neighborhood who needs help.

He said poverty and hunger have a major impact on the community as a whole because when a child is hungry, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, for them to concentrate on their school work. He added poverty also has been linked to crime, and more than $28,000 in taxes are spent each year to incarcerate one prisoner.

Paesano said he’s asked state legislators also to address the problem of child poverty.

State Sen. Jack Yost, D-Wellsburg, said he plans to bring state Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, to the area to discuss the Feed to Achieve Act.

Introduced by Unger and signed into law by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, the law sets up a system through which donated local money may be used to supplement federal funds used for school nutrition programs.

Del. Phil Diserio, D-Brooke, said backpack and similar programs may be eligible for help from the Mountaineer Food Bank.

Established in 1981, the organization supplies food and personal hygiene products to people in emergency need through more than 500 nonprofit organizations in 48 West Virginia counties.

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