S. John Collins / Baker City Herald -- The Backpack Program puts community volunteers to work once a week building 88 food packs to help qualified students get better nutrition during the weekends. Five of the volunteers are, from near to far, Rick Rembold, Susan Hinzpeter, Mark Ferns, Deb Trapp-Roehm and program organizer Lynn Roehm.
By Chris Collins
As the new year begins, the First Presbyterian Church is expanding two programs designed to help feed Baker City children.
The expansion is possible thanks to two grants awarded by the Eastern Oregon Presbytery, which oversees Presbyterian churches in Eastern Oregon and parts of Idaho.
But community contributions and more volunteers will be needed to maintain the expansion, according to Larry Cassidy and Lynn Roehm.
Cassidy coordinates The Open Door program and Roehm coordinates the Baker Backpack program.
The Open Door offers breakfast and a warm place for Baker Middle School students to spend time before classes start each morning at their school just across the street from the church.
And more than that, the students find adults who are willing to listen to them and to get to know them, says Mindi Vaughan, Baker Middle School principal. Vaughan has high praise for the willingness of church members to reach out to her middle schoolers.
“Middle school kids really like to have someone who will listen,” Vaughan says. “And it’s letting community members get to know middle school students.”
She also appreciates the free meals that are provided for all students.
“It means that they get a great, healthy breakfast in the morning and it means that they are ready to learn,” Vaughan said, without the distraction that an empty stomach can bring.
For its part, the Baker Backpack Program sends a weekend supply of nonperishable foods home every Thursday with students who might otherwise go without.
“It’s a great program for kids we worry might not get all the food they need for the weekend,” Vaughan said.
Volunteers in the church programs, who must first complete a criminal background check and agree to comply with the church’s Child Protection Policy, are being sought to help expand the efforts. Those who want to help prepare food also must complete a two-hour food handling video.
The Open Door has operated on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the past two years, but has expanded to four days thanks to a $7,300 grant. And the church plans to expand the Backpack Program to include more students with a $12,000 grant awarded for that purpose.
The grant funding provides about 55 percent of the annual program cost, Roehm said.
Cassidy arrives at First Presbyterian Church at 1995 Fourth St. at 6:30 a.m. to prepare the breakfasts, which are served from 7 a.m. to 7:45 a.m. Cleanup is usually completed by 8:30 a.m.
Students are also welcome to play pingpong, foosball or other games or to work on their studies or to just sit and chat with other students and adults before heading off to school before the first bell rings.
On Thursday mornings, Roehm and his volunteers start sacking food at 8 a.m. and spend about an hour filling sacks with items such as peanut butter and jelly, canned tuna, fruits and beans and heat-and-serve items such as macaroni and cheese or instant oatmeal. The sacks are then taken to the schools to be distributed to students.
The grant funding will be used as seed money to supplement donations that come from members of First Presbyterian Church and other congregations as well as community members and businesses.
More grant funding also will be sought.
“Community-wide support in the future is the only way a program like this can support itself,” Roehm says.
To expand support, the two men will be taking the story of the outreach to other groups and civic organization seeking more donations and recruiting volunteers.
Both programs were established under the leadership of Liz Romtvedt, the church’s former youth and missions coordinator, who left the position last spring.
Cassidy and Roehm both credit Romtvedt with recruiting them.
“God bless Liz,” Cassidy says. “This was her forte — she knew how to mingle with students and make them feel welcome and invited.”
And thanks to the groundwork Romtvedt laid, Cassidy says he was able to continue the program with the help of other volunteers.
The 66-year-old Cassidy retired after a 30-year career as a computer-aided design analyst for Boeing in Seattle. He initially moved to Medford where he worked with homeless people. He returned to Baker City two years ago, which has been home to his parents, Martha Cassidy and the late Duane Cassidy, since 1963.
He became involved in the Presbyterian Church, where his mother is a deacon, because he also wanted to serve others, he said.
Through The Open Door program, the Presbyterian Church literally opens its doors on Washington Avenue to welcome all Baker Middle School students to the church basement where they are provided breakfasts that include such items as a ham-egg-and-cheese biscuit, fresh fruit, fruit smoothies, cold cereal and milk or hot chocolate.
To participate, students must provide only a permission slip signed by a parent or guardian. The forms are available from the middle school office.
Roehm, 61, retired from a 20-year career with the U.S. Forest Service. He joined the Baker Backpack program last fall as a way to give back to the community.
“Liz had the insight and the heart to initiate the programs,” he said.
And he’s proud of how Baker City residents have responded.
“The community of Baker is an extremely generous community,” he says. “I’ve yet to find anyone who says no to anything that benefits kids — and that touches me.”
In addition to speaking about the program in the community, the men also hope to place bins at various sites to collect food items. And they hope to involve older youth church members from throughout the community.
Each month a specific food item will be sought through donations. Last month the featured food was peanut butter. In January, the program is especially asking for canned soup donations, Roehm said.
More information is available by visiting the First Presbyterian Church at 1995 Fourth St.; calling 541-523-5201; or by visiting the church’s website at bakerfirstpres.org.