Photo by Mike Kunath, MAP Executive Board Vice President                                                                    Sterling Heights Police Officers Bob Wojciechowski (left) and Mike Kunath (right) present Blessings in a Backpack – Utica Fundraising Chairperson Bob Maynard with a donation to the program. The Sterling Heights Police Officers Association is the primary sponsor of the program at Havel Elementary in Sterling Heights.

By Jennifer Gomori, MAP Editor

MAP Executive Board Vice President Mike Kunath, a Sterling Heights Police Officer, got to know Bob Maynard through his son’s high school baseball team. Maynard, a grandfather of one of the players and Kunath, a coach, later teamed up to help feed local children.

Maynard is fundraising chairperson for Blessings in a Backpack – Utica, a program that provides weekend meals for needy children at three Sterling Heights elementary schools throughout the school year. Every Friday children, who receive free breakfast and/or free lunch at school during the week and are signed up for Blessings in a Backpack through their schools, pick up their backpacks filled with six meals, which are easy for kids to prepare themselves.

“There might not be an adult who’s there to help prepare the meal,” Maynard said. “Everything that is done is coordinated so it can be prepared by a kid.”

When the weekend is over, they return their backpacks to school to be refilled by program volunteers. This 40-week program is made possible by corporate and community donations and volunteers.

“Mike came to me after hearing more about what we do. He basically said we’d like to be involved,” Maynard said. “He asked if we would consider adding Havel Elementary and that he would try to get us as much support as he could for it. (Officer) Bob Wojciechowski and Mike have worked very hard. Based on Mike and Bob’s input we added Havel. They’re funding comes up to roughly 25 percent of the money needed for that school.”

Sterling Heights Police Officers Association donates to the program throughout the school year. They are even planning to produce a police calendar to sell with proceeds going to Blessings in a Backpack.

“Our organization started in January 2018 to help feed students at Havel Elementary,” Kunath said. “We donated money for the second semester at Havel Elementary and we donated enough money for the school year for 2019. They made us the keynote marquee sponsor for Havel Elementary,” Kunath said.

“We could not do that third school without their assistance,” Maynard said. “They also have come to (backpack) packing. They’ve given us support through the bowling fundraiser - they show up. We’re going to have a run in Shelby River Bends Park in October. I’m confident that the Sterling Heights POA is going to support that event in some fashion. It’s not just writing out a check. It’s showing up and giving the human support that’s needed, and they do that.”

So far, the program has delivered 66,000 meals to Sterling Heights students at Havel, Dresden and Jack Harvey elementary schools. While donors and volunteers do not meet or know the identity of the children receiving the backpacks to protect their family’s anonymity, they do get feedback from the schools. Kunath was taken aback when he heard about a child’s response to receiving a juice box in their backpack . “He loves it because he never gets a juice box at home, but every Friday he drinks a juice box,” Kunath said.

Each child is assigned a number and that number is placed on their backpack. If the backpack doesn’t get returned to the school for refills, the program follows up. “We watch the number. If they forget or there are a lot of misses, somebody at school will ask the child about it,” Maynard said. “If they’ve lost it, once we know, we do another backpack.”

Havel’s Principal Kristina Tepper shared the school’s appreciation in a letter to Blessings in a Backpack. “Havel Elementary staff and students would love to thank you for your generosity and care of our students here at Havel. Seeing that they have food for the weekends is truly vital in some cases, and because of you, they have had their needs met,” Tepper wrote.

Maynard loves the transparency of the program. “This organization is monitored by the Community Foundation of Greater Rochester. Volunteers don’t have to handle money,” Maynard said. For a $100 donation, a child will receive a school year worth of weekend meals. “The money that we raise goes to feed children," he said. "It’s not going for other things. Meijer supplies six meals a weekend for 40 weeks for $100.”

Maynard said Meijer only charging $100 for 240 meals would not even normally cover the shipping of that food alone. “That is a wonderful gift. Meijer does that in all 23 school districts across the State of Michigan that we’re involved with,” he said.

For more information, please visit Blessings in a Backpack – Utica website.