The woman behind much of the Backpack Coalition’s success since its inception almost four years ago is moving on, but leaves the nonprofit in capable hands at the start of a new school year.
Barbara Mendoza has provided much of the administrative power behind the Backpack Coalition since its inception in January 2014. It began serving 133 food-insecure students in five Loudoun schools, but has since grown more than 1,000 percent, outpacing even Loudoun’s own rapid growth. During the 2016-17 school year the program, which supplies food-insecure students with essential grocery items on weekends and holidays, served 1,339 students at 24 schools—each and every week.
Students are identified for the program by their school and those who receive assistance are not limited to those on free or reduced lunch programs. They can be students whose parents just lost a job or are experiencing medical issues, and have to make the tough choice between paying the electricity bill or putting food on the table.
The food provided by the Backpack Coalition is meant to help feed an entire family. A student can go home on a weekend with a package of macaroni and cheese, pancake mix, and rice and beans, as an example. The program costs $5 per week per child, and is helped with grants and deals on food from the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.
In her time leading the Loudoun County Public Schools’-sanctioned program, Mendoza, whose position is financed entirely by grants, was able to secure $200,000 in funding thanks to a grant match by 100WomenStrong. The group had approached her with the intent to support all the schools that did not have organizational support for the program. But first she needed to raise $100,000 in two years and they would match it. She did it in just 14 months.
“The worst someone can say is no,” Mendoza says of her doggedness in fundraising. “If I don’t ask I’m not going to know the answer. I’ll go out and knock on doors and come and talk to everyone I meet about the program. A lot of times people say how can I help.”
Mendoza shirks much of the credit for the organization’s rise, and instead praises the throngs of volunteers that make the unloading, packing, and distribution happen.
“You cannot do it without the volunteers,” she said. “When I first started, I was able to deliver the food myself to the schools, but as the years went on, there was no way I could do that.”
The faithful volunteers included 4H and Girl Scouts, the ARC of Loudoun community, companies donating their time, and school groups. Kelly Miller, who is taking up the reins with Mendoza’s departure, is hoping to expand the list of regular, consistent volunteers with more outreach to school kids, particularly those in need of service hours.
Miller affiliation with the Backpack Coalition came by way of her own volunteer time two-and-a-half years ago when her community swim team did a kids’ triathlon and the Backpack Coalition was the beneficiary.
“I just kept coming back,” she remarked.
“I called her the foreman,” Mendoza joked. “When she was here, she just took charge.”
“I was the brawn, she’s the brain,” Miller added with a laugh.
The start of the upcoming school year was supposed to be an ideal time to mentor Miller for Mendoza’s role with an eventual, easy handoff. But life had other plans.
“I went home to Wisconsin at the end of June and came back with a job,” Mendoza said.
That job, which she leaves for later this week, will be heading up the F.R.E.S.H. Project. The new program will have Mendoza working with Wisconsin farmers, farmers markets, and grocery stores to provide food to needy families in Shawano and Menominee counties, an area with a high concentration of Indian reservations.
So it’s “baptism by fire” for Miller, although not a total fish out of water, owing to her time spent with the Backpack Coalition. She said she is quickly learning about the vast number of things Mendoza quietly did behind the scenes and picking her brain for guidance.
“I am the same as Barbara—I’m not afraid to ask. I’ve done that for fundraisers and charitable things in the past,” said Miller, who previously served as the PTO fundraising chair at Mill Run Elementary. “Now going out and finding sources is a different thing, but Barbara has told me tap into whatever I can. I have to be evangelical about the program. The more volunteers we bring in, they help spread the word too.”
But Miller notes she does indeed have big shoes to fill.
“She’s well loved by the community,” she said of her predecessor Mendoza.
But Mendoza believes she is leaving the Backpack Coalition in capable hands, and is proud of what she has helped to begin in Loudoun. All county schools that do not already have organizational support from a business or church are being served through the Backpack Coalition.
“There is not one kid on a waiting list, or that needs a program and doesn’t have it,” she notes.