Three years into running a summer sack lunch program for hungry children, Rose Gates had a thought.
“If these children don’t have food in the summer, what do they do on the weekends during the school year?” the Danville woman wondered. “They were receiving nutritious food at school. But for their little bodies to grow and for them to be able to concentrate and learn, they need that continuity of nutrition.”
So in 2010, Gates, with the help of a group of volunteers, launched the Feed the Children Backpack Program.
Today the program provides nutritious, satisfying weekend meals to nearly 450 students in the Danville area, and Gates has been named this year’s AMBUCS First Citizen by the club’s Danville chapter for establishing it and keeping it running it all these years. She is the 86th recipient.
Gates was selected from among five nominees, said Natalya Bourn, the club’s president and First Citizen selection committee chairwoman. She will be honored on May 9 at the Turtle Run Banquet Center in Danville.
Bourn said Gates rose to the top because of her passion for the program, describing the assembly-line-style bag packing session that takes place on Friday mornings as “a fine-tuned machine.”
“Rose embodies all the traits ... of this esteemed recognition,” added John Shane, of the Vermilion Heathcare Foundation, one of several who nominated Gates.
“She raises the money to purchase the food, organizes the dedicated volunteers and helps prepare the backpacks for distribution and is promoting the program for nearby communities,” Shane wrote in his nominating letter.
“I was so very impressed with Rose’s dedication and commitment to these children,” continued Shane, who also saw Gates and her team in action, preparing bags on that day for 419 children. “She is certainly a hands-on person ... (and) she is truly making a difference in our community.”
Growing and growing
Gates was a nurse at the old St. Elizabeth Hospital, a nursing instructor at Lakeview College of Nursing and a clinical specialist in geriatrics and, later, the national coordinator for patient advocacy for the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System. After she retired in 1999, she took a Master Gardeners’ class and looked forward to “playing” in her flower beds.
It was while serving as the parish nurse at Trinity Lutheran Church in Danville that Gates started the sack lunch program, which provided a bologna or peanut butter sandwich, fruit and veggies, a granola bar and other items to about 50 to 75 students, mainly from Meade Park and the old Cannon elementary schools, on weekdays during the summer.
That program, funded by donations from Trinity, Immanuel and Bethel Lutheran churches and a grant from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, ran for five years. It ended when Gates saw there were a number of organizations providing summer meals.
By that time, the backpack program — which Gates researched and financed through grants and donations from area businesses, churches, other organizations and individuals — had expanded to serve more schools and students, recommended by school social workers, teachers and even food service workers, who noticed certain children coming back for an extra helping or two on Mondays.
The food was stored at Trinity Lutheran and had soon taken over her half of the choir robe closet and the stage in the auditorium.
“Some men put some shelves in a hall along the stage, and we stored food there, too, until we outgrew that,” Gates recalled. “Then, I had a dilemma as to where to go. Misty Walker (of PepsiCo) ... who had been working with me since the beginning with the granola bars, asked the pastor of her church (Archie Neal of Life Church) if they had any space we could use.”
Neal obliged and in December 2015, the pantry and weekly packing operation moved to the Hub, used for Life Church’s youth activities.
‘Meant to be’
Now, the Hub’s kitchen walls are lined with shelves stocked with soup, macaroni and cheese, Vienna sausages, peanut butter crackers, mixed fruit, pudding cups, oatmeal, cereal, granola bars, juice boxes and many more items.
Then on Friday, the food items in one of the four rotating menus that Gates created are rolled into the gym and put into the bags. She said it takes the 34 volunteers — including the program’s 12 board members — about 1 hours to fill the bags. Then, drivers deliver them to the city’s six public grade schools and South View Upper Elementary and North Ridge Middle schools. A total of 10 are delivered to Danville Lutheran School and the Vermilion Association for Special Education.
“Our overall goal is through good nutrition, the children can concentrate and learn ... so they will grow up and be productive adults and, hopefully, give back to their community,” Gates said.
Gates was busy packing March 21 (Danville students’ last day of school before spring break) when four women walked into the gym, carrying two large, gold helium balloons of the numerals 6 and 8. For a minute, she was confused.
“My birthday is in April, but I’m only going to be 84,” she said.
She laughed when the women told her they were to signify she was the 86th recipient of the First Citizen award.
Gates, who has been honored by the Illinois State Board of Education and other groups, felt honored and overwhelmed. While she doesn’t do it for the recognition, she’s happy to use it to shine a spotlight on the program, the need among some of the most vulnerable in the community and the need for donations, “which makes all of this possible.”
“I feel like this is a calling,” said Gates, who has no plans to stop “until God decides.
“I never dreamt that the program would grow like this,” she continued. “I’m sad that there are that many students in need, but I’m glad that we can help them. I feel that this program is meant to be and that we’re here for a purpose.”