"As has become the norm, Wilson County is gracious to partner with Lebanon Special School District to ensure that good things for young people go from concept to reality,” said Director of Schools Scott Benson. "Ten years ago, teachers, administrators and community members were insistent that some children might need extra food for the weekend, and the LSSD Weekend Backpack [program] began with 70 children served the first year. The program has grown to serve more than 350 elementary school children, and saw a huge focus on middle school pantries with more than 1,500 bags of food going home with our older students."
Benson said 60 percent of the district qualifies for free and reduced lunch, which makes the system eligible for Second Harvest programs, such as the Backpack program. Beth Petty, Family Resource Center coordinator, said several times a month the center receives either a financial or food product donation.
"The Backpack program does not cost our school system any money. It is completely funded by heavy hitters such as Second Harvest, United Way, Immanuel Baptist Church, Fairview Church and Vulcan Materials,” Benson said. “These larger organizations provide the bulk of the program, but our smaller community stakeholders are just as important and always amaze us with the creativity of projects they host and the amount of support just a few volunteers can provide when they have the well being of students as their focus."
Petty said the need in the community only intensifies in the summer months.
For four years, the district’s Family Resource Center has provided a small summer food program at the Wilson County Civic League, but it soon became evident it was not enough. Last year, Angie Ballard, child nutrition supervisor, and several of her cafeteria crew were awarded federal funds and headed out in a large school van, now called “the Little Neon” to provide hot meals to anyone 18 and younger at several sites, including the Don Fox Park.
"This year, before Angie and I could even ask for more, Scott Benson, came to us first. With enthusiastic support from school board members, Steve Jones, Andy Brummett and Mark Tomlinson, Mr. Benson gave us a decommissioned school bus and ‘The Neon’ was born,” Petty said.
“With financial support and donations from the LSSD Coordinated School Health Program, Family Resource Center and Vulcan Materials, we have been able to wrap the exterior of the bus, turning it into a rolling neon billboard. We have also installed bright red tabletops so that children can eat in a 50s style diner setting, complete with air conditioning.”
As funds become available, the district will make the bus more visually appealing to guests and install interior neon lights and signs, according to Petty.
“Our main focus is to feed, but we also want to provide a safe place for students to meet their friends and have fun,” Ballard said.
This year, the summer food program has greatly expanded. Starting week three, the district anticipates to serve 250-300 meals per day. The Neon bus and Little Neon van are serving residents in Weatherly Estates, Meadows of Lebanon, Peyton Road Apartments, Tater Peeler Homes, Spring Hill Apartments and Rollingwood Apartments.
Coles Ferry Elementary School cafeteria is open from 11 a.m. until noon, Wilson County Civic League from 11:45 a.m. until 12:05 p.m., and extended hours at Don Fox Park are from 12:20 p.m. until 1:30 p.m.
"Both this and last year, many of our school staff took advantage of the program and visited the park, then let their kids come over to get a lunch. It made for a fun and free play date. This year will be even more fun with the addition of the Neon. We want the public to understand that our first priority is to make sure children who might not have access to a nutritious lunch get one, but anyone truly means just that. There are no stipulations to service. We want everyone to bring the kids out," Ballard said.
The Keith Edmonds Foundation led the way in providing additional treats for the program by donating hundreds of sodas and bags of chips. Lebanon Endoscopy Center also joined the team by holding a breakfast drive and gleaning more than 73 boxes of cereal.
Petty said as the summer gets more intense, children love to get ice pops as an additional treat, and if small groups or individuals want to donate, this is a good project.
Packing up weekend snacks is also another way to make sure children get fed every day of summer break.
“At LSSD, we dream big for our students, so any donation will be greatly appreciated. You can be assured it will be connected to one of our many food programs,” Petty said.
For more information or to make a donation to the Neon, contact Ballard or Petty at email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org. View the Neon flyer at lssd.org.