Henderson Elementary Helps Students in Need With Bear Necessities


Credit to Kamryn Bell

Students in Heather Bitter’s fifth grade class count the number of boxes of cereal available for that week. Every Thursday they put together bags for students in need of food on the weekend.

(Photos by Kamryn Bell)

Heather Bitter’s fifth graders shuffle from desk to desk, counting out food items, placing one of each item in a plastic shopping bag. When the bags are complete, Bitter and fellow fifth grade Henderson teacher Ashley Bengston deliver the bags throughout the elementary school to classrooms that hold a Bear Necessities child.

The Bear Necessities program started five years ago when Bitter and Bengston met with the John Weldon coordinator in her living room. Bear Necessities functions similar to Operation Backpack, supplying children with enough food for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack while they are away from school on the weekends.

“We reached out to her and she invited us to her house,” Bengston said. “We sat at her living room table for about three and a half hours. She told us everything she could possibly tell us about this program. She graciously gave us all of her paperwork that she had legally, made sure it was ok and it would not get us in trouble for sending it out.”

Bear Necessities started at Henderson in January 2014 with only 10 kids receiving bags, at the time anyone was accepted that applied. To be considered for the program now, students must be on free and reduced lunch. Henderson Office Staff verify the families applications and then send the names of the students on to Bitter and Bengston. The program has now grown to help 59 students in 2018.

“Last year, because there has been such a huge increase in numbers, we changed it [applying] a little bit,” Bitter said. “Last year, we only sent them [applications] home to students who were on free and reduced lunch and new incoming kindergartners. Then, we put something in our ‘Eagle’s Nest,’ the Henderson newsletter, letting the parents know that we do have this program, this is what it is. If this is something you think you would need, then please contact the office or your child’s teacher.”

Bitter’s class helps to pack the bags every Thursday at the end of the school day. Bitter doesn’t require students to help bag that week’s food, but to ensure that they have enough food for the 59 students that need it, she does ask that they count and sort the food. When bags are finished, they are placed in the center of the room and are double-checked to make sure nothing is missing. If there are any bags left unpacked, Bengston and Bitter will finish making and delivering them with help from their kids.

“Heather came up with a brilliant idea about letting her class help, which is wonderful, because now they really take ownership in it and they’ll either count the food out for us and start bagging,” Bengston said. “Or even if they just count the food out for us and then we bag after school, that helps. I mean, when when we first started, and we didn’t know any better, it was as soon as school was over and dismissal was over, we were counting and putting food in spots in her room and then starting the train of bagging food and then delivering.”

In addition to the program growing among students, it has also started to grow in the community. Harvester Church of the Nazarene is a main supporter of Bear Necessities. The church collects monetary and food donations at the church as a part of their “Live Out Love” campaign.

“We have people that believe in the Bear Necessities program so much that every single month they give towards it at our church,” Chris Moser, Lead Pastor at Harvester Church, said. “So every month they’re helping fund Bear Necessities and then we also have people that go and shop. They know the items that are needed and so they bring those items on a weekly or monthly basis to the church.”

Bengston and Bitter emphasized how lucky they were to have Harvester Church as a supporter. In the two years that Harvester Church has been sponsoring Bear Necessities, it has practically erased the need for donations and, along with food, they donate school supplies to the Bear Necessities students at the beginning of the year. Although donations will never be turned down, the program is in a better place than where they started.

Bitter repeated that her students, in every year they’ve packed food, have taken such an ownership in the process that they can even do it on their own.

“At any age you can make a difference,” Lynlee Moser, Lead Pastor at Harvester Church, said. “Every person: child, teenager, adult can make a difference.”

Bengston and Bitter have received help from the different parts of the community throughout the years and are very thankful for any support they’ve received, no matter how small.

“Thank you,” Bengston said. “I mean Heather and I say it all the time. No thank you is enough for what it really means to see this program work the way it does and has grown the way it has grown since Heather and I started it.”