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  • Paul Elsley


In 2012, Blessings in a Backpack was established in Kingston to provide food assistance to families in need on the weekends. Children’s backpacks were filled with nutritious foods on Friday afternoons. Led by Kingston Coordinator, Paul Elsley, our president in our Centennial year, the program quickly became a favourite of Rotarian volunteers. The program changed its name in 2017 to Isthmus Kingston and, by that point, Rotarians were helping fund the program and were actively volunteering with its weekly operations. By 2020, Isthmus Kingston was feeding 215 children attending five local schools weekly.

When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, the schools were closed, and it quickly became clear that the regular delivery model would not work. Elsley took the challenge to the Rotary Centennial Committee. Celebratory plans had been put on hold, and Rotarians were looking to support a COVID-19 initiative that reflected one of Rotary’s areas of focus: Child and Maternal Health. Sensing this as an opportunity, a determined group of Rotarians hatched a new plan.

In April 2020, Isthmus Kingston moved its base of operations from the schools to the Food Sharing Project warehouse on Rigney Street. Healthy hampers of food were collected and packed weekly at the warehouse and subsequently delivered directly to the homes of families. The early success of these efforts encouraged others like the Food Sharing Project, Martha’s Table, and the Partners in Mission Foodbank to embrace a similar model.

Other key community partners included Lionhearts, Inc. which provided loaves of bread and other rescued foods each week and gave access to one of their delivery vans. The Robinson Community Garden, owned by Rotarian Bernie Robinson, provided hundreds of pounds of fresh vegetables, some of which were harvested by Rotarian volunteers. Local businesses like Cobbs Bakery, the Wholesale Club, and Grant’s No Frills provided healthy food items either at cost or as a donation.

The highlight of the project came during the final week of the summer. The regular community back-to-school backpack campaign was shut down because of the pandemic. Costco, Staples, and other businesses were keen to provide backpacks and supplies, but there was no one to lead. At this point, the United Way, knowing that Rotary had a delivery model established for the children most in need, asked if we would take it on. The project partners quickly said yes and, in addition to the food hampers, delivered backpacks and supplies to families in the program.

The project regularly fed nearly 600 food-insecure families including 1,500 children. Rotarians and Friends of Rotary donated $32,500 toward the project, close to 40% of the budget. There were 65 Rotarians from all four clubs and the two Rotaract clubs who donated their time phoning families, collecting food, packing the hampers, and delivering them to homes. And the program continues to this day. It serves as a classic example of what can be achieved when Rotarians inject their knowledge, ideas, resources, and energy to overcome an obstacle and commit to our principle of Service Above Self.

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