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Groups step in as economy affects more children

By Sarah L. Smith
Coastal Observer

The number of school children in Georgetown County who receive free meals jumped 181 percent this year. As the effects of recession linger, more kids are relying on charities or schools for food and clothing.

“Obviously, we’re seeing the side effect of what’s going on in the economy,” said Paula Johnson, director of Christian Education and Family Ministry at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church.

Backpack Buddies, a St. Peter’s program, served 53 children when it began last year. This year, it’s serving 88.

“I think more families have had parents lose jobs and are needing help,” Johnson said.

Many of the students are already on a free and reduced-price lunch program subsidized by the federal government.

Children are eligible if they live at poverty level, use food stamps or meet federal requirements to receive Medicaid. All parents have to do is apply annually.

“A lot of parents don’t realize that you can reapply if there is a change in income or an increase in family size,” said Jan Knox, the school district’s food service coordinator.

This year, the district is providing 5,659 kids with free meals. That’s up from 2,007 last year. The number of students who get reduced price meals has fallen to 733 from 3,217 last year, but overall, the program has grown by 22 percent.

The number of students who receive free or reduced lunches usually varies between 60 and 62 percent of the district’s enrollment, Knox said. It has 10,300 students.

She thinks more children are eligible, but their parents aren’t aware that when circumstances change they can apply for assistance.

She said one parent reported her summer wages and hours rather than the lower income she had during the school year.

“Fortunately, she was able to give me more information,” Knox said.

By reporting her school-year income, she could get her children free lunches.

Sometimes parents don’t take the initiative to find creative ways to provide for their children. That’s why St. Christopher’s Children was formed in November 2007.

“I happened to be going up Waverly Road, and it was a really cold morning,” said Bob Pelletier, the nonprofit’s president. “I saw this little girl walking up to the elementary school, and all she had was flip flops and a flimsy coat.”

Pelletier saw a need and decided to meet it by creating St. Christopher’s Children.

The nonprofit fills clothing and medical request from school nurses and counselors.

St. Christopher’s volunteers go out in the community and use money the nonprofit raised to buy needed items or get children medical services.

Volunteers never see the children they help. All they know is they fill five to six requests per week, Pelletier said.

“We’ve taken care of over 400 kids, not counting the babies,” he said. “I don’t know how many babies, but we’ve given out 21,000 diapers.”

Pelletier said the number of children the organization helps grew in the past year as more people heard about St. Christopher’s. He didn’t have records showing how needs have grown over time, but said occasional requests have turned into daily calls and e-mails.

The biggest challenge is raising money.

“It really challenges the entire community,” he said. "But to come forward and write those checks, it makes a difference."

This holiday season, St. Christopher’s Coats for Kids drive is a way people can help without giving money.

Carolina Cleaners dry cleans the coats, and St. Christopher’s distributes them to Teach My People and other nonprofits that support children.

To find out the nearest drop-off location, call 235-0777.

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