Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Michel Vekved’s title with the Rotary. It also stated that the family resource center staff purchase food for the program, but 36 Weekends volunteers do.
About 15 minutes a week can fill bags of food for 17 needy San Juan Island children. Volunteers will do so 36 times: one for every weekend during the school year.
This inaugural local program is sponsored by the Rotary of San Juan Island and aims to fill empty bellies over the school year, and in turn, boost children’s grades and good behavior.
The program, called 36 Weekends, provides bags of nonperishable food, over the weekend, for Friday Harbor Elementary School students who sign up. So far, 17 students have registered, but anyone can apply throughout the year.
According to Diane Ball, the elementary school principal, good nutrition equates to better learning.
“Being hungry has an all-consuming impact on a child’s body,” she said. “It often affects a student’s ability to focus on lesson content and the task at hand.”
Ball explained that, this year, 37 percent of students at the elementary school receive discounted or free lunches. Students qualify for the program based on their family’s income.
Those registered for free or reduced lunches are not automatically enrolled in 36 Weekends, however, the number of students who receive the discounted meals illustrated the need for more help.
Michel Vekved, who is the Rotary’s community services committee chairwoman, said she first noticed the gap in service from islanders’ testimonials, including longtime local volunteer Joyce Sobel, who passed last winter.
“I was talking to Joyce Sobel and she was telling me about the need, and I was talking to Linnea [Anderson] at [juvenile courts] confirming the need,” said Vekved.
Her work on a 2015 community assessment through the San Juan Island Community Foundation emphasized the gap when the evaluation identified a need for a weekend food program for those in early education. The first round of bags was dispensed on Sept. 7.
Every Friday during the school year, roughly five volunteers will pack bags with items such as granola bars, instant oatmeal, canned soup and nonperishable milk, and deliver them to the public elementary school. School staff then dispense the bags to enrolled students to take home, ensuring anonymity for registrants. All of the items can be opened by elementary-school-aged students, from kindergarten through fifth grade, without help from an adult.
The program, said Vekved, is a community effort. The Rotary will fund $23,000 for 36 Weekends over four years, with additional funding from the United Way and private donations. The San Juan Island Family Resource Center staff receive the donations and 36 Weekends volunteers purchase the food from Valmark Inc., which is the company that owns the island’s grocery stores, King’s Market and Friday Harbor Market Place. Valmark will provide the food at a discount and goods will be stored and packed at a spare room at KeyBank. KeyBank tellers also accept bag donations in which to pack the food.
Vekved emphasized the difference between this program and larger ones.
“This is the islands, so we needed something that was really island-centric and was doable and it met the needs,” she said. “I’m just super grateful that so many people are willing to join me in putting this together.”
Vekved, who lives on Orcas Island, said she modeled 36 Weekends after a similar program at Orcas’ local public elementary and middle schools called Weekend Packs for Kids. Kate Long, who is involved in the Orcas program, said it started in 2011. The program served 24 students last year; 38 students in the 2016-17 school year; and 46 in 2015-16.
Vekved said the San Juan program could expand to other schools as well, but wanted to start small to ensure a successful first run. She would also like to include fresh food but currently has no storage space.
Mostly, Vekved is hoping to see lasting results from the developing efforts.
“It’s really about making a difference in your community and this one has such a long-term ripple effect,” said Vekved. “I can’t imagine a kid who doesn’t have access to nutritious food over the weekend.”
Canvas tote bags, labeled with the 36 Weekends logo, can be purchased at King’s Market and the San Juan Island Food Co-op. Proceeds will go toward purchasing food for the program.
For more information, as well as to donate or volunteer, visit www.sji36weekends.org.