Above: Working with Backpack Buddies, Assistance League of Atlanta members, left to right, Joann Gallagher, Sue Jakubecy, Carol Mason, Debbie Baughman and Diane Contino gathered at the Assistance League of Atlanta in Peachtree Corners on Dec. 5, 2019, where the group helped to pack donated weekend food for children at Dresden Elementary School. Photo by Asep Mawardi.

Two years ago, Ronald and Samra Robbins launched a program that altered life for dozens of families at Dunwoody’s Kingsley Elementary School. Their Backpack Buddies program at Congregation Beth Shalom began by providing weekend meals for 50 children at a school where more than half of the student body qualified for free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch.

Backpack Buddies Bnai Torah
Backpack Buddies co-founders Ronald and Samra Robbins, center, talk with, Rose Haber, left, and Bonnie Cook, co-leaders of the Backpack Buddies program at Congregation B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs. Behind them, volunteers Larry Ellison and Susan Eisenstein sort food. Photo by Donna Williams Lewis.

But even at the beginning, the Robbins knew they were just getting started.

Thanks to their determination and to an anonymous donor, Backpack Buddies has spawned 15 affiliate programs in synagogues, churches and other locations in just a little more than a year. “The best part about this to me is that without a huge amount of effort, there are a huge amount of children being fed,” Samra Robbins said.

Nearly 500 children at 10 schools are now receiving enough food for the weekend through the work of all of the groups.

The Robbins’ Beth Shalom group has upped its own efforts and now, in addition to Kingsley, also delivers backpacks weekly to 30 children at Montclair Elementary School and to 25 at Woodward Elementary School.

Children should not be going hungry in America, Ronald Robbins said. “We have so many freedoms but so many people who don’t have food to eat,” he said. The retired Ford Motor Co. sales and marketing executive typically books three or four meetings a week with organizations he hopes to sell on starting their own Backpack Buddies programs.

His message to them: “Hunger doesn’t take the weekend off.”

“Samra’s been there right by my side the whole time,” he said. “This has been a labor of love for both of us.”

All it takes to start a Backpack Buddies program, he tells prospects, is “having a place to store and pack the food, a champion willing to spearhead the effort, willing volunteers and a desire to help feed nutritionally challenged children in the community.”

‘So blessed with volunteers’

Congregation B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs was Backpack Buddies’ first affiliate and sent its first delivery to Dunwoody Springs Elementary School in September 2018. Co-led by Rose Haber, Bonnie Cook and Debbie Sonenshine, the group has now added Dresden Elementary School to its list. Their program delivers weekend meals for 80 children between the two schools, with expectations to add more as time goes on.

Backpack Buddies volunteers
Volunteers sort food for the Backpack Buddies program at Congregation B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs for students at Dunwoody Springs and Dresden elementary schools. From left are Susan Eisenstein, Ruth Levison, Roberta Rittner and Sharon Freedman. Photo by Donna Williams Lewis.

They have a wait list for volunteers.

“So many people have wanted to participate it’s unbelievable,” Haber said. “We have been so blessed with volunteers.” Among them, Alan Cohn and Larry Ellison help to pick up, sort and deliver the food.

“I think it’s a great way to help the children in school. A child has to be healthy to learn,” Ellison said.

One of the group’s appeals is that all money donated goes directly to the children, Cook said. “There’s no lack of needs, even in our wealthy suburbs,” she said.

Donations have come from both their congregation and the community, with some following the Jewish custom of giving monetary gifts in increments of 18, Cook said.

Eighteen is the numerical value of the Hebrew word “chai,” which means “life,” and the congregation was told that $180 could provide enough weekend food for a child for an entire school year.

“Some donated $18. A lot of people donated $180. Some did $1,800,” Cook said. “The generosity of the community has been overwhelming.”

How it works

At least twice a month, Ronald, 72, and Samra, 69, visit the Atlanta Food Bank to pick up as much as 1,300 pounds of nonperishable food in seven specific categories. They load the food into their SUV, then drive to Beth Shalom and unload it all. When the Food Bank can’t completely fill their needs, they strike out in search of the best grocery store deals.

Once a week, volunteers from their synagogue and the community spend about an hour sorting food into a bin for each child. Each one will contain four protein products, two vegetable items, two cereals, two fruits, two milks, two juices and two snacks.

The bins’ contents are loaded into sacks which are delivered weekly to schools for students selected for the program with parental permission. Counselors place the food into the backpacks on Fridays for the children to take home on the weekends, and they return the backpacks to school on Mondays.

The affiliate programs generally follow the same guidelines but, as autonomous organizations, can design their own workflows.

‘This is what it’s all about’

Skyland UMC
From left, volunteers Mary Freeman, Kristen Wages and Matt Hurd sort food into bins at Skyland United Methodist Church in Brookhaven on Oct. 3, 2019, the first day of the Backpack Buddies program at the church. Each week, volunteers deliver backpacks filled with weekend food to 25 students at Montclair Elementary School. Photo by Rev. Dr. Miguel Vélez.

An anonymous donor has been key to Backpack Buddies’ expansion, providing a $1,500 grant to each new affiliate and a $500 mentoring grant to the group that launches them. New groups must commit to serve at least 24 children and to grow their Backpack Buddies programs over time.

The Robbins help them go through the channels to connect with schools and partner with the Atlanta Food Bank, which charges a small handling fee per pound of food received. The couple also personally donates packing bins, backpacks and packing bags to each new group, offering them ongoing assistance and encouragement.

Eleanor Flanagan, treasurer of Brookhaven’s Skyland United Methodist Church, still remembers her initial talks last August with Ronald Robbins. “I can’t tell you how committed he was to this and how persistent he was,” she said. “He’s just a great guy. … He makes it work for you.”

Today, Flanagan is the administrator of Skyland UMC’s Backpack Buddies program, which has 10 volunteers filling backpacks weekly for 25 Montclair Elementary School students. More than 90 percent of Montclair students qualified for free and reduced-price lunch in 2018.

“Our first delivery was Oct. 3. On Oct. 6, a family came to our church and one of the little boys was telling our youth pastor about getting food in his backpack,” Flanagan said.

“I choked up,” she said. “It’s one thing to think about it in theory, but to have a human being in our sanctuary who got one of those bags, it kind of just rocked my world. It really made it ‘this is what it’s all about.’”

Backback Buddies affiliates

Backpack Buddies programs launched by Ronald and Samra Robbins:

  • Ahavath Achim Synagogue, Atlanta
  • Assistance League of Atlanta, Chamblee
  • Chamblee First United Methodist Church, Chamblee
  • Congregation B’nai Torah, Sandy Springs
  • Congregation Beth Shalom, Dunwoody
  • Congregation Gesher L’Torah, Alpharetta
  • Congregation Or VeShalom, Brookhaven
  • Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, Atlanta
  • Congregation Shearith Israel, Atlanta
  • Kingswood United Methodist Church, Dunwoody
  • Lenbrook Square life plan community, Atlanta
  • Skyland United Methodist Church, Brookhaven
  • Temple Beth Tikvah, Roswell
  • Temple Emanu-El of Atlanta, Sandy Springs
  • Temple Sinai, Sandy Springs
  • The Temple, Atlanta

To learn more, contact Samra Robbins at 912-844-9127, samrarobbins@gmail.com, or Ronald Robbins at 912-272-6245, ronaldrobbins034@gmail.com.

Assistance League of Atlanta

Assistance League of Atlanta, a nonprofit that helps more than 60,000 children and adults in need each year, launched its Backpack Buddies program in September. The all-volunteer organization delivers 30 backpacks filled with weekend food each week to Dresden Elementary School.

Carol Mason Assistance League of Atlanta
Carol Mason. Photo by Asep Mawardi.

It’s the first time the organization has helped people with food, according to Carol Mason, vice president of philanthropic programs.

“There is a great need in the Atlanta area to provide food for those that are hungry,” Mason said. “We are pleased to be able to feed the children at Dresden for the weekend when they might not have anything to eat.”

Through its programs and a network of community partners, the Assistance League provides new clothing, household goods, hygiene kits, comfort items, baby layettes and educational aid to those affected by poverty, abuse and homelessness. “We love what we are doing to help those in need. We are an organization of very happy people,” Mason said.

Programs are funded by monetary donations and grants and from the sale of donated clothing, household goods and furniture at the Attic Treasures Thrift Shop in Chamblee, at 3534 Broad St. For more info, visit assistanceleague.org/atlanta/thrift-shop.

A counselor speaks

Ruth Blackstock is a counselor at Dresden Elementary School, where 93% of more than 1,000 students receive free and reduced-price meals. Here’s what Blackstock had to say about Backpack Buddies:

“Dresden Elementary started working with the Backpack Buddies program in August 2019. Our first distribution was 9/20. We have distributed every Friday since.

We received almost 300 applications interested in being part of the program. We are currently receiving food for 60 backpacks per week. We hope to increase that number to 100.

Distributing 100 backpacks of food per week is about all we can handle with our current level of volunteers to tag and distribute the bags, track receiving individuals in a spreadsheet and track the bag returns.

Our PTO parents have been the backbone of the tagging and distributing. We so appreciate them!

The students are proud to be receiving the backpacks. They are grateful they can bring some help to their households.

We are so thankful to Congregation Beth Shalom, Congregation B’nai Torah and the Assistance League for their faithful donations and support of our students and families.”

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