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No summer vacation for Packing for the Weekend

Last year, when the Red Wing Family YMCA created its Summer Enrichment and Recreation program, children were able to go on field trips, play in Red Wing’s parks and keep up-to-date on their math and reading skills.

This year’s summer enrichment program kicked off Tuesday with an added feature: a bag full of food for children in need.

The United Way of Goodhue, Wabasha & Pierce Counties has teamed up with the Red Wing Family YMCA to continue the Packing for the Weekend program throughout the summer months.

“It sounded like a win-win,” said Y Youth Development Director Josh Thygesen. “It sounded like a great opportunity for the kids.”

“I don’t know what kids would do if they didn’t have this food,” United Way Executive Director Maureen Nelson said. “They would go without.”

The United Way created Packing for the Weekend in 2011 as a way to deal with growing hunger problems in the region. Each week during the school year, backpacks filled with groceries — enough for the family to eat Saturday and Sunday — were discretely placed in students’ lockers Friday afternoons. United Way accounting assistant Diane Maurer said the program served 91 families last school year.

For the last two years, the United Way tried to continue the entire backpack program through summer, Nelson said. Last summer, families were to come to the United Way’s downtown offices to pick up their packs. But very few families actually came to get the food.

“That just didn’t work out at all. It just was a fiasco,” Nelson said. “We knew that we had to think of something else to do.”

That’s when the United Way approached the Y about working with the summer enrichment program. Now, instead of bulky and conspicuous full backpacks, children are getting bag lunches Mondays and Wednesdays.

The summer program is open to any family who participated in the normal program that runs through the school year, Nelson said. In the last couple of packs sent home to kids before school let out, the United Way included a sign-up sheet for the summer program. There are currently 30 kids, from 14 families, enrolled in the program, Maurer said.

“It’s enough for a good meal for that day. It does provide the possibility of maybe being a little more than just one meal,” said First United Methodist Church Pastor Greg Strunk, who helps coordinate church volunteers to pass out the lunches to the children. “They’re packed generously.”

The lunches include non-perishable items such as canned beef stew and pasta, granola bars, fruit cups, fruit snacks, juice boxes, crackers, cheese sticks and fresh fruit.

“(We) really tried to keep it healthy, keep it nutritious and fill their stomachs at the same time,” Nelson said.

As a result of the inclusion of the Packing for the Weekend program, Thygesen said the summer enrichment and recreation program has grown. Last year’s enrollment of 90 children went up to 140 this year. And, with registration forms coming in, Thygesen predicts there will be at least 150 children when all is said and done.

That increase, Thygesen said, is a chance for the program to reach the at-risk and in-need children who can really benefit from it.

“They’ve got some structure and a chance to have some really good positive interaction with the staff and the other kids,” he said.

In addition, all of the kids will get to take advantage of the Y’s additions to the enrichment program, Thygesen said. Last year, the program only ran for five weeks. This year, it will be eight weeks long. And two new parks — A.P. Anderson and Jefferson School — will join Hi Park, South Park and Colvill Park on the program’s rotation.

“It’s an upgrade from last year,” Thygesen said.

Anyone interested in signing up their children for the Y’s summer enrichment and recreation program can do so by contacting Thygesen at 651-388-4727. Cost is $50; scholarships are available.

Food donations can be made to the Packing for the Weekend by dropping off food at the United Way office, 413 W. Third St. A list of accepted foods can be found at Checks made out to the United Way and with Packing for the Weekend in the memo line are also accepted.

Sarah Gorvin
Sarah Gorvin has been with the Republican Eagle for two years and covers education, business and crime and courts. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2010 with a  journalism degree.