As director of character education for St. Luke’s School, Kate Parker-Burgard coordinates community service and leadership opportunities for the student body.
About one year ago, one St. Luke’s parent—New Canaan’s Tina Kramer—began sharing with Parker-Burgard what she and fellow town resident Shawnee Knight had been doing with the national Blessings in a Backpack program: The pair had operated the model to purchase and deliver food to 100 kids through a nonprofit that St. Luke’s already works with, Stamford’s Domus—kids on free or reduced lunch at a school—with an eye on expanding the model (through a new organization now in full effect, Filling in the Blanks) to operate through the summer.
“Through our work with Domus as well as what we learn from Tina, we are understanding what the huge gaps are in terms of nutrition and food scarcity within our community, so this has been a really neat touch point for us,” Parker-Burgard said Thursday afternoon from the front yard of a North Wilton Road home that serves as the collection and packaging center for Filling In the Blanks.
There, dozens of volunteers across a wide spectrum—St. Luke’s students, faculty and parents, public school kids and parents, members of the New Canaan Police Department Special Response Team, led by Lt. Jason Ferraro—lined up to unload a truck full of canned corn, Healthy Choice soups, whole grain Chef Boyardee whole grain products and macaroni-and-cheese.
The home, Kramer’s property, sees volunteers—often teens from our schools or coordinated through nonprofit groups in town, such as the New Canaan High School Service League of Boys—come through every two weeks to put together 400 bags for delivery. During the school year, the food is distributed through Domus and to qualified children at Bedford Hills Elementary School.
This past summer marked the first where the nonprofit Filling in the Blanks—an entirely donor-funded organization whose founders, Knight and Kramer, have put on their own fundraisers and partnered with local organizations in others—began operating in earnest.
The idea is that Blessings in the Backpack, while meeting many needs during the school year, doesn’t operate in the summer. Filling in the Blanks not only operates through the summer (through Stamford’s Chester Addison Community Center as well as Domus), but also is expanding to “level-up” the nutrition in food provided during the school year.
“Our push is to move toward healthier food, but it’s hard to send them home with a bag of kale, a cucumber and quinoa and say, ‘Here, do something with this,’ ” Knight said from inside the roomy house, an otherwise inhabitable 4,000-square-foot home whose would-be sleeping quarters now bear names such as “The Potato Chip Room” (Kettle came through with a large donation).
Other organizations that have come through with donations include Hain Celestial (granola, for example) and Pepsi. Knight said she and Kramer also take the time to load up their Suburbans at Dollar Tree with apple sauce, chili and soup.
Knight said Filling In the Blanks (a member organization of the New Canaan Chamber of Commerce) would love to launch a formal food donor program with a company such as Newman’s Own—that, along with upping the nutritional value of what they pack for the kids, are priorities for the organization now.
Meanwhile, the regular food runs and unloading sessions, and packing sessions, see new people each time, which is hugely rewarding, Night said.
“The kids are happy and it seems very well received,” she said. “And the community has been very supportive.”