SOUTH LOOP — Don't be surprised if you spot a homeless man or woman wearing a backpack from the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences.
Students from the school at 3857 W. 111th St. in Mount Greenwood distributed 150 drawstring backpacks Tuesday at the Pacific Garden Mission in the South Loop.
Water, granola bars, hygiene products and other essentials were stuffed into the backpacks by the 33 students of JaMonica Marion's agriculture education class.
"It's a good program. We homeless people really need generosity," said Vincent Smith, 62.
Howard Ludwig says it's a valuable moment for the teens:
Smith has been homeless for about a year. He shouted, "God bless you" to the Ag School students before walking away from the outreach center at 1458 S. Canal St. with a backpack over his shoulder.
After distributing the backpacks, the students spent several hours volunteering at Pacific Garden Mission. The day's events were the culmination of a project called Backpack Foods.
The students designed the project in accordance with Lead2Feed, a team-based learning program that aims to teach students leadership through service projects designed to tackle hunger.
Marion was among the first to sign onto the inaugural program in 2012. Five schools throughout Chicago now participate in Lead2Feed. The free program is based on the principles outlined in a book authored by Yum! Brands Executive Chairman David Novak.
Novak is the head of the company behind KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. He authored "Taking People With You" on Jan. 3, 2012. The concepts within the book have been translated into 10 Common Core-aligned lessons educators can customize for their classrooms.
At the Ag School, students brainstormed several ideas before settling on the Backpack Foods project. This meant securing donations of food and other items for the backpacks. Initially, the students sought to fill 250 backpacks.
"When donations started to decrease, the kids came up with a lesson plan and went into all of the classrooms," said Marion, adding that the hands-on plea resulted in several excess cases of water and food donations that were also left at the mission.
She said the 2015 project particularly stands out as students opted for a hand-on approach to tackling hunger in Chicago.
"I could have easily put these backpacks in a vehicle and brought them here," Marion said. "But this way they can see that what they are doing is making a difference."
Brittany Nash, 17, of Mount Greenwood said classroom discussions revealed just how close to home the problem of hunger often occurs. Some fellow students even spoke about not having enough to eat.
"The fact that [the mission] is a 20-minute drive away really stands out. Most people don't realize that. Hunger is not just in some Third World country. It's right here," Nash said.
Janet Jennings was overwhelmed upon receiving the backpack. She led the crowd at the mission in a round of applause for the students.
"It helps them to appreciate the things they don't have," Jennings said.
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