Backpack Buddies

This photo essay is part of “We Are the Change,” a series telling the stories of local causes. View all the “We Are the Change” essays.

Every Friday afternoon, just a few minutes before the final bell rings, about 30 eager Four Corners Elementary School students in grades 1 through 5 rush down the hallways to receive white paper sacks full of goodies to take home for the weekend.

These sacks don’t contain candy or baked treats. They are packed with more nourishing foods such as cheese sticks, yogurt, juice, baby carrots, applesauce, tuna, granola bars and ravioli. The sacks help ensure that the students — whose families struggle to afford food — eat well over the weekend.

The Backpack Buddies program at Four Corners got its start when Laura Drager, chairperson for the social concerns committee at Christ the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in southeast Salem, saw a Statesman Journal article about how congregants at Saint Mark Lutheran Church had initiated the program with Hoover Elementary School.

“There are no coincidences, just God’s small miracles, which is what last year’s SJ article was for me and the creation of Backpack Buddies,” Drager says.

Last fall, Drager reached out to Saint Mark to learn how they organized the program, and elicited the support of her friend Anne Clemens at Christ the Good Shepherd to co-coordinate a similar program in their church’s neighborhood. Once they had the green light from Alma Rodriguez, the community outreach coordinator at Four Corners, Drager and Clemens started to solicit food and money donations from their church. Rodriguez identified students with the greatest need, and by January, Backpack Buddies at Four Corners was in full swing.

Not only do students in need benefit from Backpack Buddies, but the project is meaningful to the Christ the Good Shepherd community as well, says Pastor Karl Hester.

“The scale of hunger in this world is so hard to fathom,” he says. “Through Backpack Buddies, we can meaningfully engage the hunger that is in our immediate neighborhood. The response from our membership speaks volumes about what it means to them to help combat food insecurity in our community.”

The program at Four Corners is off to a great start. The goal for the 2014-15 school year is to double the number of children who receive this support from 30 to 60. Each sack costs about $4, so the church needs to raise $120 per week, or $480 per month, to serve 30 students.

As the principal at Four Corners, I know that kids need to be ready to learn in order for them to prepare for a successful future. A big part of that is having the basics: a good night’s sleep, health care and solid nutrition. By supporting Backpack Buddies at Four Corners or Hoover — or starting your own similar program somewhere else — you can contribute to helping some of Salem’s most at-risk students arrive at school every Monday morning ready to learn.

Contact Backpack Buddies

Phone: 503-363-3726
Email: Laura Drager,

Phil Decker, principal at Four Corners Elementary School and facilitator of the Salem Photo League, is a documentary photographer who studied at the International Center of Photography in New York. See more of his photo essays at

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Congregants at Christ the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church on State Street started a Backpack Buddies program after reading a newspaper article about a similar program at Saint Mark Lutheran Church.

Anne Clemens (left) and Laura Drager, the forces behind Backpack Buddies at Christ the Good Shepherd, inventory their food supplies each week before heading to Costco and WinCo to get good deals.

Pastor Karl Hester and children from Sunday school bless the Backpack Buddies food.

Congregants pack sacks assembly line-style each week after Sunday morning services.

Mark Clemens from Christ the Good Shepherd brings packed bins to Trinity United Methodist Church, which shares a parking lot with his church and is next door to Four Corners Elementary School.

Flo Cruzen from Trinity stores perishable items in the church kitchen until they can be delivered later in the week.

Dale Boswell and Flo Cruzen from Trinity wheel the food bins into Four Corners on a Friday afternoon.

Alma Rodriguez, community outreach coordinator at Four Corners, arranges the sacks for distribution in the school’s cafeteria.

Typical contents of a Backpack Buddies sack.

Austin, a student at Four Corners, and his three brothers each receive a sack every Friday.

Austin pauses on his way home from school to play on the monkey bars.

Damijon, Austin’s oldest brother, organizes the contents of the boys’ sacks to store in their kitchen cupboards.

Cody helps prepare a lunch of ravioli.

The brothers sit around the table, enjoying their Backpack Buddies lunch.