PHOENIX — Almost 10 years ago Sheila Dion noticed a pattern.
Then a food service worker in the Phoenix Central School District, Dion would see students going up to the line to get an extra banana, apple or other snack they could stash away for when they went home.
“So when I went to the social worker and said it was the same kids, she said ‘We really need a backpack program. We’re the only school in Oswego County without one,’” Dion recalled.
The conversation sparked Erin’s Angels, a not-for-profit ran out of Michael A. Maroun Elementary to combat food insecurity in the Phoenix school district. Every week volunteers pack bags full of food for students — primarily in the elementary school — to take home each weekend.
The bags include breakfast, lunch, dinner and two snacks for each day. Breakfasts are often cereal or oatmeal, with the other meals often being something easy to make like ravioli, soup or macaroni and cheese.
The initial focus was on students who receive reduced price lunches since the children who are given free lunches also receive SNAP benefits, but the program eventually expanded to include the needs of all students in kindergarten through sixth grade and beyond.
Dion said the percentage of students who received free or reduced price lunches varies between 48 and 51 percent in the district depending on enrollment.
“If there’s a high school student that has a need for food at home, they can go to the social worker and pick out some food for their backpack too,” Dion said. “Really, we’re servicing every child in our district who needs us.”
Dion estimated the number of meals provided over the last three years has been in the thousands. Erin’s Angels also provides food in the summer and other breaks from school.
“It’s grown exponentially,” Dion said. “The first distribution in October 2017 was 17 kids, and now we’re on average between 75 and 80 kids per weekend.”
Erin’s Angels are committed to keeping everything within the community.
“Any food that we can’t use, we bring over to the food pantry,” said volunteer Linda Bulgrien, who serves as the menu planner and shopper. “If we notice it’s not going to be sent, we’ll keep it in the community.”
Before Erin’s Angels got off the ground years ago, they needed to find an umbrella nonprofit organization to take donations through.
“That took a while,” Dion said. “When it did happen, it was the Southern Oswego County Council of Churches. They allowed us to come under their wing, and we’re very, very grateful for them … because without them, we wouldn’t be where we are.”
Once that was figured out, Dion needed the OK from the school, and in May 2017 she received approval from Phoenix Superintendent Christopher Byrne.
The organization, which boasts about 10 regular volunteers, has continued to grow. In December, Erin’s Angels of CNY got its official determination from the IRS as a not-for-profit.
Erin’s Angels accepts donations at the elementary school but also has an Amazon wishlist on its website (erinsangels.com), which includes items that are perfect for backpacks. Items can be purchased on Amazon and shipped directly to the pantry.
“People love that. In this age of convenience, people love to just point and click,” Dion said. “We actually have one person who has it on automatic renewal … and we highly recommend that. Then, the person doesn’t even have to think about it. Their card gets charged once a quarter and we get some very needed cereal or any other food item.”
Dion hopes to eventually have a mobile setup that will not only feed people in the community, but provide them information on services such as 211, a resource to help people locate food, shelter, health care and other needs.
After years of helping feed local children, Dion is encouraged by the constant support from the community.
“It’s like the old adage that it takes a village,” Dion said. “This village is very close knit, and when you say there’s a need, they come through.”