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Cadence Associate Food Program in Forsyth County

Lambert High School’s chapter of Blessings in a Backpack participating in a food drive

Feeding hungry kids is a blessing for Cadence manager, too

Cadence Associate Food Program in Forsyth County

At 7:45 a.m. every Friday at Lambert High School in Forsyth County, Georgia, a group of students sets up an assembly line in a teacher’s room. They sort more than 2,000 food items into 316 plastic bags, 7 items per bag: two main dishes, two breakfast items, and 3 snacks or desserts, such as fruit cups or applesauce. The bags are tied shut and divided into 32 laundry bags, with two bags representing one of the county’s elementary schools. Then, volunteer parent drivers show up to deliver the bags to the schools, following routes set out on laminated cards.


Social workers or guidance counselors at the 16 elementary schools complete the task, taking the bags and discreetly tucking them into certain students’ backpacks while the kids are on the playground or at lunch. Only the social workers know which children receive the bags, keeping the students’ identities private.


All qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program during the school year, which means their families live significantly below the federal poverty level. And this weekly act of kindness means that those 316 students will not be hungry over the weekend.


Blessings in a Backpack keeps kids fed


“It really is kids serving kids, that’s our approach to it,” says Alan Thomes, who also is the managing director of SBA Banking for Cadence Bank in Alpharetta. With his wife, Ashley, their son, Evan, 20, and daughter, Emma, 18, the Thomes family has made Lambert High School’s chapter of Blessings in a Backpack a family affair for the last six years. Alan and Ashley are program coordinators; Evan and Emma have each participated as students, first helping to pack the bags, then each becoming president of the club later.


But the family is just a part of the equation; the success of the group is due to student club members and volunteers (who now number over 100), parents, faculty, grants, and community groups, who support them with fundraisers and donations.


Blessings in a Backpack is a 501(c)(3) non-profit national organization with more than 1,000 chapters run by more than 10,000 volunteers nationwide. They serve a total of 87,000 kids each week in 45 states and Washington, D.C.


“There are more than 13 million children in this country who are at risk of hunger,” the Blessings website says. “The consequences of hunger are much more than a growling stomach. Poor nutrition can result in a weaker immune system, increased hospitalization, lower IQ, shorter attention spans and lower academic achievement. Children are fed during the school week by federal government programs, but we want to make sure they’re getting nutritional meals over the weekend, too.”


Program meets in a basement


Cadence Associate Food Program in Forsyth County

In Forsyth County, that mission begins each week in the Thomes’ basement, which Alan built out with shelves and which holds approximately 5,000 cans, boxes and plastic-wrapped food items waiting to be distributed. Each Tuesday night, a handful of student volunteers come over and spend an hour and a half or so in the basement counting out the food for the coming Friday. If they’re short on a category of items, Alan, Ashley or Emma will go buy whatever is needed to make up the difference. Evan is a junior in college now, so isn’t at home for the weekly routine.


Ashley works continuously to keep the pantry stocked, routinely partnering with Publix, Costco and BJ’s Wholesale to find out what’s on sale so she can order from them in bulk.


“My wife is a pretty savvy shopper,” Alan says, “figuring out how to get the most mileage out of the budget as possible. Like at Costco, when you have a big pallet of mac and cheese, 1,000 boxes, people look at you. ‘We have quadruplets,’ we say. We try to come up with creative answers. It’s pretty funny.”


And then there’s the matter of the Publix Chef Boyardee shipment. Large grocery store chains have algorithms that analyze the performance of past sales specials in order to properly estimate how much product to send. But the Publix algorithms “had picked up on our buying habits,” Alan says.


“They had three or four times their normal order; 1,000 Chef Boyardee (packages) came in one week,” he said. The grocery store chuckled and called the Thomeses, who happily purchased the unexpected shipment to use in the future.


Recognizing a local need


The family first got involved in 2013, when son Evan was a freshman at Lambert High. A sophomore at the school recognized the need in Forsyth County and believed that it was a perfect opportunity for Blessings in a Backpack. He started a club in the high school, with a mathematics teacher and department co-chair as faculty sponsor. And with the club, he founded the Forsyth County chapter of the national organization.


Evan was soon identified as having leadership potential. To keep up with the organization’s rapid growth, he asked his parents for support, which they quickly gave. In Evan’s junior year, he became president of the club, which had then grown to more than 70 students and was feeding about 100 kids a week. By the time he graduated, the effort had grown to serving just over 200 kids a week.


Cadence Associate Food Program in Forsyth County

But the family involvement wouldn’t stop there; when Evan was a senior, his sister Emma was a freshman. She also became involved throughout her years at Lambert and became president of the club in her own right in her junior year. This year, the volunteer students number more than 100, with 30 parent volunteers on board.


The club, as do all Blessings chapters, raises all the money needed to fund the operation; it receives no funds from the national organization. The Lambert High budget for the 2019-2020 school year is $34,750, based on the national Blessings in a Backpack recommendation of $110 per child per school year. Since the club’s administrative expenses are covered by the $10 annual dues paid by each student member, all the money raised by the students goes directly to purchase food. Some Atlanta corporations – Home Depot, for example – have made large donations that keep the chapter running for weeks or months at a time.


Cadence Bank gets involved


Shortly after Cadence Bank merged with State Bank in January 2019, leadership learned of Alan’s involvement with Blessings in a Backpack. Alan sent Cadence a summary of his work with Blessings and received immediate support through a $5,000 contribution to the club’s fund.


“The bank recognized what we’re doing and wanted to help,” Alan said.


Even with all the good they accomplish, the Lambert High School club realizes there’s more to do. There are more students in need than Blessings can serve; the Forsyth County School System estimates the current identified need to be well over 400.


“My challenge is finding leadership in the community to grow this effort and goodwill families to own it,” Alan says. “Maybe get a board together, an advisory board, to help sustain it long-term as our children graduate.”


Alan continues: “This is bigger than us. So, we have younger class members involved and are identifying future leaders. We’re trying to find some other families who have middle-school kids or incoming freshmen who might take over some of it.”


For the foreseeable future, the Blessings in a Backpack weekly routine will stay the same: Tuesday nights in the Thomes basement, Friday mornings in the faculty sponsor’s classroom, and the knowledge that 316 – or, maybe in the future, more – kids won’t be hungry that weekend.


Thank-you notes and more blessings


Since the children who receive the food are anonymous, the Blessings volunteers don’t have the opportunity to meet them. Sometimes, volunteers get thank-you notes, so they know their efforts are appreciated. And once in a while they get a closer glimpse.


When the grandfather of one volunteer was helping a woman living at a shelter to create a resume and find a job, she talked about the challenges she and her children were facing. He asked if she knew about Blessings in a Backpack and told her that his granddaughter was involved.


“She broke into tears,” Alan said. “She said her two children were both in the program. She went on to say that there were times when she didn’t know how she was going to feed her kids, and that the food they received from Blessings was the only food they had available. She said she was forever grateful for the program.”


Learn more about our mission, vision and values


Cadence Bank is proud of Alan and all our associates who work to make the world a better place. When people come together to make a difference for youth, the whole community wins. Learn more about our mission, vision and values.


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