By: Karen McPherson,
Estes Park Nonprofit Resource Center
Estes Park comes together once again to provide food for those who could use a little extra support. Estes Pak is a collaboration between volunteers, nonprofits, and the school district. The program is over four years old, it paused during COVID, and is re-emerging with new players. Second grade teacher Terry Leija started Estes Pak and notes, “I feel like this is a great example of a grass-roots program that continues to help families and continues to evolve to survive.”
The program started when the leadership of the Estes Park Education Association (EPEA, the local teacher union) was approached by the leader of KidsPak, a program out of Loveland that sends food home for families on weekends. The teachers’ union was encouraged to consider how the program might work here. They had an informational meeting, invited service organizations, churches and individuals in the community and found there was a lot of support and interest for the program.
They decided to start fundraising and promoting the program. Terry Leija was the EPEA president and took on the role of Estes Pak Coordinator. This was not the district's idea, it was not a service mandate. The teachers saw a need to help kids in their classes, so they did. No one is paid to do the work. The original intent was to make sure kids came to school on Monday well fed and ready to learn.
The EPEA partnered with the Longs Peak Rotary as their 501c3 nonprofit sponsor. The program was originally funded by a grant from The Food Bank for Larimer County, but later we self-funded locally. Leija explains, “We get money from all sorts of groups in town: the Quota Club just gave us $2,000 in February. Over the years, all the Rotary Clubs have donated, the Woman's Club, and all sorts of other individuals and groups.”
The Food Pak team sends home a bag of food that is nonperishable and has two meals that are healthy and easy to cook. Shelf stable milk, cereal and some snacks are also provided. The families do not need to qualify to get food. If they have a need, or request the food, it is supplied. Originally, the food all came from the food bank in Ft. Collins to an extra, empty classroom in the elementary school. Teachers, clubs, groups and volunteers packed the food.
In March of 2020, when COVID hit, the program stopped. Leija notes there was too much fear surrounding COVID food handling and the schools were closed. At that point, any surplus food was donated to Crossroads. When school started in the fall, COVID regulations demanded smaller class sizes, which meant any extra classrooms were now being used for instruction. There was nowhere on site to store and pack food.
About three weeks ago, Leija was approached by Courtney Carrol, Estes Park School District’s Social Worker and Mental Health Coordinator. “She had been speaking with Crossroads; we figured out a way to get the program back up and running. Crossroads is really the key now: they are providing the food for the rest of the year. We made a bunch of phone calls to families that might need help and got a lot of requests. This week, we sent home about 33 bags of food to the community.” This number is higher than the usual 20 or so bags, but requests for up to 45 weekend bags have come through.
The EP School District’s Courtney Carrol is coordinating the program through the end of the school year, which allows teachers to finish out a highly unusual year with demands and adaptations of their own. New providers have been introduced to help make the program go: Estes Pak now pays Crossroads to provide the food, The Estes Park Nonprofit Resource Center (whose offices are conveniently located in the Presbyterian Community Church of the Rockies (PCCR) across the street from the schools) provides space for volunteers—most of whom are members of PCCR—to pack the food bags.
COVID has forced adaptation in all sectors. Food Pak is a successful program, in part, because of its ability and willingness to evolve and lean into collaboration: it is well-funded by organizations and individuals, it is supported by agile leaders and volunteers, and teachers are willing to adjust in order to continue to support their students’ success.