All Kids Win, a nonprofit organization in Thurston County formerly known as Homeless Backpacks, may have started the New Year out with a different name, but their mission of serving homeless and food-insecure teens and children by providing weekend backpacks full of food remains the same.
The all-volunteer organization started over 15 years ago with a group of friends discussing the best way to support the homeless. The result was a collaboration of assembled backpacks full of survival supplies that were handed out, delivered to area encampments and shelters.
The group, having realized the number of homeless children included within that segment of the population, identified a gap that exists during the weekend timeframe when students were not receiving food from school districts and decided to realign their focus.
“What we found was that kids were getting their free breakfast and lunch during the week at school, and then had little or no food access on the weekends,” says Kelly Wilson, founder of the program. “So that’s where we wanted to jump in and figure out a way to get weekend food to the kids.”
What began with just a few schools at first quickly grew each year as more and more counselors and school staff within Thurston County reached out to them, as the need for such a program increased. “Each year we were growing by 50 to 60 students,” said Wilson. “It reached about 600 students a week.”
While All Kids Win does serve elementary school children, their primary demographic is the middle school and high school age range, with backpacks discreetly supplied with items more specifically geared towards the older group. “The contents are a bit heartier,” said Wilson. “What it takes to get a 16-year-old through the weekend, compared to an eight-year-old is probably very different.”
Today the program has expanded to include not only homeless students but those that are facing food insecurity, which quickly increased because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They support students in North Thurston, Olympia, Yelm, Tumwater, Rochester, Tenino and Rainier School Districts.
“When COVID-19 happened, our board voted to broaden the focus because so many families were suddenly finding themselves facing food-insecurity,” said Wilson. “Our numbers at one point went up to 2,400 students a week. Now, we have leveled off at about 1,300 per week.”
The pandemic created other challenges, not just with the increase in supplies needed, but in getting food to the students. With school buildings not open, as well as a shortage of volunteers with many falling into the higher-risk category, the logistics became more complicated.
Fortunately, as the need to shop in greater quantities became evident, partnerships with school districts have been instrumental in helping to pick up those larger orders, often by the pallet, and from the All Kids Win facility, while getting it to food distribution sites and to the students who need it.
“It’s really beautiful the way that our partnerships with school districts have grown,” said Wilson. “When everything had shut down and we felt the initial panic, knowing we weren’t going to have enough volunteers, a new crop of extraordinary humans just reached out and picked up the ball.”
For the very first time, the initiative was able to continue through the summer months, while school was out, as districts extended their breakfast and lunch services, as well as the distribution of All Kids Win weekend food backpacks.
With the help of an amazing group of volunteers, many having been on board since the very beginning, as well as new ones including teachers and staff, food was provided through the entire week and weekend.
To meet the current demands for the number of kids in Thurston County needing food support, the cost is over $10,400 per week.
In December, the group held a virtual fundraiser called “The 12 Days of Christmas,” in lieu of their normal yearly in-person event to raise money for food. They also made the Christmas wishes of many students they serve come true.
They were able to do this through an online giving tree gift list and daily Facebook live auctions. Each day saw a different silent auction, with everything from jewelry, to resort stays and vacation packages, to desserts and restaurant gift cards.
From the generous donations of their sponsors, surrounding businesses and community members, they raised over $33,000 for food and helped a number of students to have happy holidays.
A poignant short video segment mid-way through the 12-day event featured one of the many guidance counselors the group has worked with sharing her gratitude about what the program has meant to her and the direct impact she has seen it have upon students through the years.
Another clip shows a touching tribute made by a former student who relied upon food she received in her weekly backpack and what a blessing it had been in her own life, as well as her family’s.
Although the students being helped are anonymous, just knowing the difference that All Kids Win has made and continues to make in the lives of children and families in Thurston County is what keeps the organization going, as well as the hope of inspiring other communities to create similar projects.
If you would like to make a tax-deductible donation in support of All Kids Win, here is a specific list of items needed. They also accept gift cards to local grocery stores. Want to volunteer? Find out more information including on how to give your time to this worthy cause.