ORLANDO – With a red backpack in one hand and a blue one in the other hand, Orlando Magic star center Dwight Howard went from station to station on Thursday collecting food and each time he greeted the students with the same expression.
“Trick or treat,” Howard would say before flashing a mega-watt smile that had a contagious effect on the dozens of kids swarming around him and hanging on his every word.
Just hours after getting back into Orlando following the Magic´s 99-95 defeat of the 76ers Wednesday night in Philadelphia, Howard was at Lake Como Elementary School helping students pack food into take-home pouches as part of the “Blessings in a Backpack” program. Howard donated $25,000 to the project as part of the winnings from the 2009-10 Rich and Helen DeVos Community Enrichment award.
The program is designed to feed elementary school children whose families qualify for the federal free and reduced meal program and may not have enough food for the weekends. Every Friday, the students receive a backpack full of noodles, puddings, apple sauce and various juices to ensure that the child has food to eat while not at school. Florida is one of seven states participating in the program, and much of it is made possible by the generosity of the Magic´s superstar center.
“I know that so many of these kids will go home and not have food, so this gives them a way to eat and get a good meal while they aren´t in school,” said Howard, who packed backpacks, high-fived the kids and signed numerous autographs. “They´ve done studies and research showing that for some of these kids the only time they eat is when they are in school. So by having Blessings in a Backpack, kids get a chance to have food to eat over the weekends so they can come back to school strong and healthy.”
Lake Como Elementary School guidance counselor Sandy Glaize predicted that kids in her school will still be talking about getting to meet Howard weeks from now. She said the Blessings in a Back program has been one that´s shown tremendous results in kids´ energy and attitudes. And she said that because the nation´s economy has been in a prolonged downturn more families than ever have had to depend on the program to feed their children over the weekend.
“It´s been a tremendous help to our kids and they don´t have to worry about not eating all weekend. We´ve seen a difference on Monday mornings where kids are coming in with more energy. When we can mitigate the effects of hunger kids don´t have to worry about it and it´s a huge help to their development,” Glaize said. “For some of these kids, what they take home in the backpack is all they have for the weekend. Then, we have other families who can combine with what their kids bring home and it helps with all of the siblings and it helps their food budgets. I´ve talked to the parents when I´m shopping for the backpack food and they´ll say, `I can´t tell you how much I appreciate this. My husband just lost his job and we really look forward to this every weekend.´ The economy has taken an effect at every socio-economic levels and the backpack program has been a tremendous boost for the kids. It´s something that they can count on, and they do.”
Magic Community Relations Manager Robyn Goukas said that the backpack plan is also made possible by the work of volunteers from the Magic organization. A total of 20 Magic employees a week go to Kaley Elementary and Lake Como Elementary to pack approximately 250 backpacks at the schools. Kids pick up the backpacks on Friday and return them on Monday morning. Glaize said work by the Magic´s volunteers shows the organization cares as much about its community as it does its basketball team.
“One, Dwight gives us the money and that´s the start of the program. But the real heart of the program is the volunteers who come from the front-office who come every week, give up their time and interact with the kids,” Glaize said. “They are bigger than life on the screen and this really humanizes the organization. They get it and understand how important this program is to the kids.”
Howard playfully introduced himself to the students as “Rick James,” and then told the kids that he was the Magic´s mascot, Stuff. “No, you aren´t, I saw you on TV,” one student screamed. “Well, I saw you dunking for the Magic,” another yelled. At that point, Howard high-fived the kids and started the program of filling the backpacks full of food.
Howard said remaining active in the community and doing what he can to assist local kids ensures that he is leaving his legacy off the court as well as on it.
“Doing stuff like this is more important to me than any basketball game because this is going to be remembered forever by these kids,” Howard said. “Basketball is very important to me, but spending time with the kids and being able to give back goes a long way. Once you stop playing basketball, people forget about you. But once you make an impact on somebody´s life, that goes a long, long way and means a lot to people. This is making a difference in someone´s life and I´m proud of it.”
By John Denton