Reflections on BackPack Pals by Justin Cook

29 Sep

This month’s “Overcoming Obstacles: CIS Success Stories” video explores the “hidden issue” of childhood hunger and showcases one of the most critical programs offered by CIS local affiliates around the state (and country), upheld by the manpower and generosity of volunteers each week—The BackPack Pals Program. Heather Little, Executive Director of CIS of Lee County, works with volunteers and guidance counselors like Audrey Stone to provide underprivileged children with food to eat on the weekends through the highly successful and desperately needed BackPack Pals Program. “Heather, Audrey and the volunteers that make BackPack Pals a success are proof that a little compassion can go a long way, and that ordinary people can—in Mother Teresa’ words—‘do small things with great love’ that help people who are struggling against extraordinary odds in unimaginable ways,” says multimedia producer Justin Cook below.  Special thanks to Denise Blanco-Durán for her assistance with Spanish translation.

Heather Little is petite but by no means little, and by no means are her goals, nor her vision for helping others and certainly not her heart.

She has one little wish.

She wishes that the fortunate would have to walk in the shoes of someone less fortunate for a week. Then maybe all the cranks, the critics, the naysayers and those lacking compassion would understand how so many make due with so little, so often.

Touched Heart

Heather’s motherly instincts are strong. She has two kids of her own so she knows how hard it is to run a smooth ship and make sure everyone is fed, clothed and ready for school. She brought the BackPack Pals program to CIS four years ago, which provides food in backpacks that low-income children can discreetly pick up from their guidance counselor each Friday and take home so they have enough food to make it through the weekend.

Heather says she volunteered with a similar program in Moore County, which is home to Pinehurst, lush golf courses and vacation homes. She saw an overwhelming need at the schools for basic food and her heart was touched.

“I started thinking that if it there is that much need in a county that is presumed to be wealthy, right here it’s gotta be needed!” she told me.

She said the process that followed was eye opening for her and the community. She told me a story about a businessman in Lee County who doubted there would be 25 kids at every school who need food on the weekend.

“I said to him, ‘You’re right! There’s more!’”

She went to principals and guidance counselors in the local schools and the answer was always the same: “Yes, we absolutely need this program.”

She began interviewing parents and students who applied for the program, and through their stories she realized that the need was shocking. In one interview she discovered a family was eating dog food on the weekends. “They instantly qualified,” she told me

Powers Combined

At Greenwood Elementary School, a short drive from Sanford in Lemon Springs, Heather met Guidance Counselor Audrey Stone who shares her concern and compassion. Their care for others united to help many families, including Esperanza Bustamante Marcero, mother of 1st grader Alan Calixto, 6, and his sister, 4th grader Stephanie, 9.

Audrey’s job is to remove barriers that prevent children from learning.

An obvious barrier affecting Hispanics in North Carolina is language.

Hispanic children, as young as 6, who are immersed in English at public schools often have to translate for their parents and help them navigate the complicated systems in our country so they can get the resources they need to survive.

The one barrier that Audrey and Heather know they can help children hurdle is access to food. “For a child to get excited over food is just incredible. You have kids out there who aren’t excited unless a new video game is in front of them, but you have some that are excited over food and easy to prepare snacks,” she tells me. Once that barrier is removed, a child’s mind and body is ready to learn and learning can break down any other barrier.

Audrey and Heather ultimately want the children they serve to feel normal, like the average child. By helping others, especially low- income families, have better access to food, parents can save money for other things that can help make their children feel normal. Esperanza told me in her native Spanish that because of BackPack Pals she and her husband (who works long hours) are able save money for Christmas presents for her five energetic children.

Heather, Audrey and the volunteers that make BackPack Pals a success are proof that a little compassion can go a long way, and that ordinary people can—in Mother Teresa’ words—“do small things with great love” that help people who are struggling against extraordinary odds in unimaginable ways.


Justin Cook is an independent documentary photographer who lives in Durham, NC. He is the multimedia producer behind Communities In Schools of North Carolina’s “Overcoming Obstacles: CIS Success Stories.” His work has been honored by College Photographer of the Year, Pictures of the Year International, Virginia Press Association, Society of Professional Journalists and other organizations. Although Cook’s photojournalism is award-winning, he gauges his success not in trophies but in the relationships he establishes with his subjects. View his work online at

Read More

For Hungry Kids, “Backpack Clubs” Try to Fill Gap by The Wall Street Journal, 2006

28 Sep

This month, CISNC’s “Overcoming Obstacles: CIS Success Stories” video explores the issue of childhood hunger, showcasing one of most critical programs offered by CIS local affiliates around the state (and country)—The BackPack Pals Program—made possible by the manpower and generosity of volunteers each week. Below is an article that appeared in the June 14, 2006, edition of The Wall Street Journal about the Backpack Pals Program.

“For hungry kids, ‘backpack clubs’ try to fill gap”
Wednesday, June 14, 2006

By Roger Thurow, The Wall Street Journal

TYLER, Texas—Seven-year-old Cody Lozano and his 9-year-old sister Cherokee hurried into their house on a recent Friday afternoon and emptied their school backpacks. On the kitchen table, next to a family Bible and a pile of bills, each child laid out a box of Special K cereal, a carton of milk, a package of peanut-butter crackers, a cup of fruit cocktail, a bag of animal crackers, a carton of apple juice, a pull-top can of beans and franks and one of rice and beans.

It wasn’t a weekend homework assignment. It was their weekend breakfast, lunch and dinner…

Read More