To many people, summer is a carefree time when it’s easy to enjoy pleasant pastimes – sipping lemonade, lounging in hammocks, strolling on the beach, frolicking in pools. But, seven years ago, Ellicott City resident Chele Ruetsch and her then 9-year-old daughter, Lauren, began realizing that summer might not be so carefree for low-income people.
“We were talking about students who got free and reduced lunches in school, and Lauren asked what these kids do during the summer,” recalled Ms. Ruetsch. That question led to a discussion about food insecurity in which Lauren’s mother pointed out that many children do not have access to something her daughter and others in their neighborhood take for granted – adequate food.
Because the thought of children suffering from hunger pangs or going to bed famished was so reprehensible, Ms. Ruetsch and Lauren decided to take action to help fix the problem by starting a summer lunch program called Bags for Hope, which culminates each year with filled lunch bags being given to the Howard County Food Bank. The mother-daughter duo settled on the name Bags for Hope because “I wanted to give children hope that life could be different,” said Ms. Ruetsch, a social worker in Howard County.
The project starts with the Ruetschs and Lauren’s friends donating food so that each bag will contain a drink, granola bar, snack, fruit, and dessert.
The first year (2011), 200 Bags for Hope were donated to the Howard County Food Bank. This summer, thanks to a growing number of supporters over the years, the number of bags swelled to 1,417.
Lauren’s friends also help supply the labor by packing food items assembly-line style into bags in the Ruetschs’ kitchen and dining room. “It’s a lot of fun. We play music and eat pizza,” said Lauren, now 16 years old and a rising junior at Marriotts Ridge High School.
Guys were added to the support mix this year, and both mother and daughter felt they brought more than variety – they organized a new system that expedited the process. Even so, it took about 10 hours divided into two work sessions to fill all the bags.
A few parents also help by transporting the packed bags to the food bank in minivans, adding several more hours of labor before this year’s mission was accomplished.
Sometimes word-of-mouth brought donations and other support from unexpected sources. One year, Marriotts Ridge High School Principal Tammy Goldeisen encouraged the faculty to donate items to Bags for Hope and contributed some food herself. The principal also stopped by the Ruetschs’ home to help assemble the bags.
In past years, Lauren and her friends used glitter to decorate the bags, but much of it fell off so they switched to drawing pictures and writing personal messages such as “Enjoy your lunch” on each bag.
“These bags provide a nice personal touch (to food bank clients) that shows that other folks in the county are caring about their needs during the summer and taking a hands-on approach to fight hunger,” said Community Action Council of Howard County (CAC) Director of Food Services Phillip Dodge. CAC oversees the Howard County Food Bank.
Lauren, who aspires to be an actress, singer, and dancer, recalls only one experience seeing food-insecure children. It was on a trip organized by a club, Community Outreach at Mt. View Middle School where she attended. The middle schoolers took donated food to Head Start students.
Referring to Bags for Hope, Lauren said, “Even though we don’t see kids get the food, we know we’re still helping. I love being able to help these kids.”
Ms. Ruetsch gives Lauren credit for starting Bags for Hope. “My daughter was the inspiration for all of this,” she said. “She was the one who asked the question about what happens to low-income children in the summer.”
It’s a question that led to nourishing a lot of low-income people and the hearts of those fortunate enough to be on the giving end.