Above: A bin of food is just about ready to be bagged for the Backpack Buddies program at Dunwoody’s Congregation Beth Shalom. Volunteers weekly fill 50 bins with 16 nonperishable food items for students at nearby Kingsley Elementary School. Photos by Donna Williams Lewis

Ice and snow had paralyzed Atlanta for two straight days, but at the first sign of thawing, Ronald and Samra Robbins headed out on their weekly mission.

They were off to a former storage room at Dunwoody’s Congregation Beth Shalom, a room filled with shelves of food and work tables. This space has become operations central for Backpack Buddies, a program launched by Ronald and Samra in November.

Backpack Buddies provides six weekend meals for 50 children at Kingsley Elementary School, where 55 percent of 500 students qualify for free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch. “Twenty percent of all children in America go to sleep hungry at night. That’s an incredible number when you think of all the money sent overseas,” Ronald said.

Kingsley Principal Melanie Pearch said Backpack Buddies has been “a great example of the community and school working together.”

“Ronald reached out to us, and it’s just been awesome,” Pearch said. She says the program has helped show families that their school is a resource for them. She’s also happy with the way students have responded to the program.

“What’s so cool is there’s like no stigma attached to it at all,” Pearch said. “There’s such a level of respect.”

‘It’s a wonderful feeling’

Volunteer Carla Wertheimer loads
nutrition bars into bins for the Backpack Buddies program at Dunwoody’s Congregation Beth Shalom, as program co-founder Ronald Robbins looks on.

At 10 a.m. on that frosty Friday, Ronald and Samra were in position at Congregation Beth Shalom, greeting nine volunteers, some familiar, most new. Some of the program’s volunteers come from the synagogue. Others have come from the community, hearing about the program through neighborhood networks.

The heavy lifting had been done before any of them got there.

At least once a month, Ronald, 70, and Samra, 67, visit the Atlanta Food Bank to pick up 600 to 800 pounds of nonperishable food. They load the food into their SUV, then drive to the synagogue and unload it all.

Today’s weekly task, normally done on Wednesday mornings, was to sort 16 specific foods into each of 50 small bins: four protein products, two vegetable items, two cereals, two fruits, two milks, two juices and two snacks.

Once a month, a jar of peanut butter and crackers is added to the mix. This was the week.

Carla Wertheimer, a self-employed landscape architect, was one of the newbie volunteers that day. “I’m not working so much anymore, and I like to volunteer,” she said. “I grew up volunteering, and that’s what we teach our kids — to give back.”

Lidet Yilma packed food with her sons, Nebiyou, 7, and Henok, 6, who attend Vanderlyn Elementary School. “We just wanted to help out in the community, and this was a perfect opportunity,” Yilma said.

“It’s cool,” Nebiyou said, “packing up food for kids who don’t have it.”

Beth Shalom Rabbi Mark Zimmerman said people want to help each other, but they often need a structure in which to participate and channel their efforts.

Backpack Buddies co-founder Samra Robbins

Backpack Buddies provides such a structure, he said.

“It’s an awesome idea, and it affords us a wonderful opportunity to do good works in the community and help families out in this way,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a wonderful feeling.”

By 10:45 a.m., the bins were filled and volunteers were bagging up their contents for delivery to Kingsley, where school personnel would place them in backpacks provided by Backpack Buddies.

Students are called to pick them up from the office on Fridays and they return the backpacks on Mondays, so the cycle can begin again.

Filling the food gap

One in every four children in Georgia struggles with hunger, according to Feeding America, a national hunger-relief network of 200 food banks, including the Atlanta Food Bank.

Backpack Buddies is far from alone in its efforts to fill the weekend food gap. Through Feeding America’s “BackPack Program,” bags of food are assembled at more than 160 food banks around the country and distributed to more than 450,000 children at the end of the week, according to the program’s website.

The Atlanta Food Bank works to fill kids’ weekend food gap by partnering with groups such as the one launched by Ronald and Samra and a Coweta County nonprofit organization, Backpack Buddies of Georgia.

Launched in 2011, that group currently serves about 550 children “at risk” for hunger in 23 elementary, middle and high schools in the Coweta County School System, according to April Anderson, its founder and president.

Ronald and Samra also have done Backpack Buddies since 2011, when Ronald initiated a program at their synagogue in Savannah, Ga. More than 25 similar programs are in operation there, they said.

Childhood sweethearts at Atlanta’s Grady High School who married in 1969, Ronald and Samra moved around the country during Ronald’s 32 years with the Ford Motor Company, settling in Savannah after he retired.

They moved back to Atlanta last April to help one of their three daughters with her medical needs. They joined Beth Shalom in June and right away set to work proposing a Backpack Buddies program.

Quickly winning approval from the synagogue’s board of directors, they got busy raising money, securing storage space and getting approved by the Atlanta Food Bank, which charges a small handling fee per pound of food received.

Backpack Buddies also accepts food donations, and Samra usually shops several times a month at grocery and dollar stores for items they need when the Food Bank doesn’t have them.

Kingsley Elementary was selected for the program because it was close. Students were prioritized, parents signed releases, and on Nov. 1, Backpack Buddies was up and running, serving 25 children. By January, they were up to 50, and they hope to serve 75 children by April.

“We’ve had to move a lot of boulders along the way,” Robert said. “We really don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Their goals are to serve 100 students at Kingsley next year, increase volunteer participation from their synagogue, and to encourage others across the metro area to start similar programs.

“I think people are surprised,” Samra said, “at how little time it takes to do something so important for so many children.”

For more information about Backpack Buddies, send an email to robbin_r@bellsouth.net or to samrarobbins@gmail.com.

Donna Williams Lewis

Donna Williams Lewis a freelance writer based in Atlanta. She previously worked as an editor and journalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.