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Blessing Lives One Backpack at a Time

March 16, 2010

By Laury Livsey, PGA TOUR Staff


Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on PGATOUR.COM on Sept. 13, 2009.

Every Wednesday during her junior and senior years at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Ill., Amy Carlson would board a bus during the school day and travel to Damen Avenue, a mile south of the United Center, home to the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Blackhawks.

As she stared out the window during the 30-minute ride there, most of Amy’s thoughts were on Charlie, who was cute, friendly and just a little shy.

Charlie didn’t go to Amy’s school. Charlie didn’t live close to her. So in order to see him, Amy had to board a bus and head to Charlie’s school—Gladstone.

Gladstone Elementary.

Charlie was a 9-year-old third-grader, and Amy was his mentor through a program her high school called BASICS—Brothers And Sisters In Caring and Sharing.

“I just loved it,” says Amy of her two-year experience tutoring and mentoring Charlie. “My older brother, Scott, had been involved in the program, and I watched him and knew I wanted to do it when I became old enough.”

Today, Charlie’s former mentor is known as Amy Wilson after she married PGA TOUR player Mark Wilson. Her interest in charitable pursuits hasn’t diminished, even now that she’s a mother to a child of her own. She’s also president of the PGA TOUR Wives Association, an organization established to "render and provide assistance to needy children and their families through the means of charitable events.”

“Doing BASICs at Gladstone as a teenager was such a big learning lesson for me. I found out that there wasn’t a lot of consistency for kids like Charlie, and it allowed me, a girl from the suburbs, to go to the city each week and spend time with him.”

Amy and Charlie would work on math, English, reading—whatever—for an hour; then they would spend another hour socializing and playing together. “He knew I would be there every Wednesday, and it was something I looked forward to each week.”

That two-year volunteering opportunity may not have been the first time Amy contributed to improving society, but she can point to her time with Charlie as a turning point for her, where getting involved in a cause took on a new meaning.

While Amy grew up in Illinois, her husband is a Wisconsin native. After college—Mark at the University of North Carolina and Amy at Indiana University—the couple settled in Elmhurst, Ill., about 20 miles south of Amy’s childhood home. Mark had always been involved in charitable activities in Wisconsin, and still is to this day, but the Wilsons yearned to become active in a charitable cause in Chicago. That’s where Blessings in a Backpack came in.

Mark and Amy learned of the program, which Stan Curtis began in Louisville, Ky., four years ago, and immediately gravitated to it. Blessings in a Backpack’s mission is to send school children home every weekend with non-perishable food they can eat on Saturday and Sunday.

Curtis, the founder of USA Harvest, an organization that feeds the hungry, realized that many kids were going to school on Mondays in bad moods. They were also often sick. “What I found out is they were hungry,” says Curtis, who began Blessings in a Backpack as an offshoot of his original organization.

The program allows the kids, who all come from low-income homes and don’t always get three meals a day, to arrive back at school on Monday morning with full stomachs and greater focus and ability to learn.

“Once I heard about the program, I was hooked,” says Amy. “And I knew I wanted to take Blessings in a Backpack to Gladstone. That was very powerful to me.”

One problem, though. Chicago Public Schools closed Gladstone Elementary at the end of the 2008 school year because of under-enrollment. The building Amy traveled to for her once-a-week visits with Charlie during her final two high school years had been transformed into University of Illinois at Chicago College Prep.

Amy, though, is nothing if not adaptable, and since many of the students at the new public high school had needs that fit perfectly into the vision of Blessings in a Backpack, she had herself a cause.

“I think for a lot of people it’s hard to embrace the concept that kids go home and there is little or nothing to eat. Often, the only food they get is at school,” Amy says. “So every Friday, the kids get this backpack full of food. It’s wonderful.

“The last thing they need to worry about is if they’re going to eat. School is hard enough, even when you have a full stomach,” she adds.

“The thing we like so much about Blessings in a Backpack is that every dollar goes to buy food,” says Mark Wilson, who enters the BMW Championship this week ranked 43rd in the PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedExCup. “There are no administrative costs. We just buy food.”

Blessings in a Backpack has determined that it only takes $80 to feed a student on the weekends for an entire school year. Each Friday, volunteers and school officials distribute backpacks with the kid-friendly food which requires little or no preparation inside. Staples include ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese, instant potatoes, soup with pop-top lids and snacks such as peanut butter crackers and granola bars.

This week, in conjunction with the PGA TOUR’s visit to the Chicago area for the BMW Championship, the third event in the PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedExCup, Mark and Amy stopped by UIC College Prep to promote the program.

Also in attendance were Stan Curtis and Doug Meijer, co-chairman of Meijer, a Midwest grocery chain, who also serves as president of Blessings in a Backpack.

“As far as we’re concerned,” adds Amy, "Mark and I are public about this because we want to get the word out. We don’t need the publicity, but we do want the people in Chicago to know about the program, to donate money, to get involved. That’s our main goal.”

“We want people to think globally but act locally,” Curtis adds. “We’re raising food, not money.”

So how do the Wilsons and Curtis know when the program is working? All they have to do is read a note from an appreciative mom:

“I work one job and go to college at night in an effort to give my children a better life. But with the prices of food and other necessities required to live, we are just barely getting through. I don’t claim to be the best mother for my kids, but I do everything I can for them. My children do get food on the weekends, but your program helps me give them more than what I can provide. It allows me to do other things with the money that I would normally spend on that same food, such as giving them better clothing (and yes we are proud Goodwill shoppers). Before I ramble, I just wanted again to say thank you—keep up the excellent work.”

“It sends chills up and down my spine when we receive a letter like that one,” says Curtis.

Meanwhile, the kids have good feelings, too. Backpacks filled with food have a way of doing that.


To learn more about Blessings in a Backpack or to donate, click here or here

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