Pair of HNHS grads leaving ‘Blessings’ to next generation

Huntington County Blessings in a Backpack founders Emily Johnson (far right) and Hollyn Anderson (second from right) symbolically hand off the ministry to members of the local committee during work time Wednesday, May 30, at Café of Hope at Life Church. Johnson and Anderson are graduating from Huntington North High School this year. Celebrating the occasion are (front row from left) Ashlynn Goster, Kate Gradeless and Autumn Anderson; and (back row from left) Dairian Goelz, Katie Melcher, Hannah Smith, Peyton Miller  and Meg McDonald.
Huntington County Blessings in a Backpack founders Emily Johnson (far right) and Hollyn Anderson (second from right) symbolically hand off the ministry to members of the local committee during work time Wednesday, May 30, at Café of Hope at Life Church. Johnson and Anderson are graduating from Huntington North High School this year. Celebrating the occasion are (front row from left) Ashlynn Goster, Kate Gradeless and Autumn Anderson; and (back row from left) Dairian Goelz, Katie Melcher, Hannah Smith, Peyton Miller and Meg McDonald. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

Originally published June 11, 2018.

Back in 2011, when Hollyn Anderson and Emily Johnson were in sixth grade at Crestview Middle School, they had no idea that they would make such a huge impact on the world around them – specifically, on hundreds of hungry children in Huntington County.

Their desire to feed kids has turned into a major charity in Huntington County, growing each year of its operation and bringing in thousands of dollars to make it happen.

But now, Anderson and Johnson, seniors this past school year, graduated from Huntington North High School on June 3, and have turned the mantle of their ministry over to underclassmen dedicated to carrying on their mission.

The two girls started out filling backpacks for 15 kids at one school; now they feed about 350 students during the school year at each elementary school in the Huntington County Community School Corporation, sending them home on the weekends with enough food to get them through until the following Monday. Chosen by their school guidance counselors and their identities kept confidential, the children take home enough for two breakfasts, three meals and three snacks.

Anderson and Johnson have no idea how much food has come in and out of their storage facility, located on the back side of the Life Church building on East State Street. But it amounts to a yearly budget of about $45,000.

Anderson says although they never see the kids who receive the food, she recently learned how much the program is appreciated when she job-shadowed her former fifth-grade teacher.

“She told me how much the kids loved having it, and they were the ones that didn’t get that kind of food a lot,” Anderson recalls. “She said they loved the Pop Tarts and they loved having snacks. They could bring in snacks to school and without Blessings in a Backpack they wouldn’t have snacks to bring in. That was kind of cool to see, even though they didn’t know that I helped make that happen.”

Johnson says she’s proud of the success of the ministry in the past seven or so years it’s been in existence in Huntington County.

“I just think it’s amazing how much we’ve grown and how many kids we’re feeding,” she adds.

Anderson credits their parents for guiding them as they began Blessings in a Backpack, and putting in lots of labor as well on the project.

“The program grew a lot. We had a lot of new volunteers who came in and wanted to serve, so that was awesome,” she says. “It was just good to see how the program grew over time, and that all the hard work pays off through the numbers.”

The new HNHS students who will take over for the next school year are Autumn Anderson, Meg McDonald, Hannah Smith and Kate Gradeless, flanked by the Blessings in a Backpack local committee.

Smith, a junior, says she became involved in the ministry from knowing the Anderson girls, who told her about their passion to help kids.

“My mom and I thought it would be fun and a good idea, so we started a few years ago – since eighth grade,” she says. “My brother is also involved … I help pack sometimes and help with decisions. I also helped with the fund-raiser.”

Autumn Anderson, Hollyn’s sister, a junior, wants to focus on raising money to help buy more food, such as the recent “Break the Chains to Stop Hunger” campaign held at Huntington North.

“We’ve never really done one before with just the youth,” she says. “I like how we branched out to get more people to get involved. It made us realize how many people really don’t know what it is, and gave us an opportunity to tell them how they can get involved.”

The underclassmen will also make decisions as to how the ministry will be run and how to spend the funds they receive.

The founders had some good words of advice for those following in their footsteps.

“I know a couple of you have been on mission trips, but just what you’re doing here, you don’t have to leave Huntington to make a difference,” Hollyn Anderson told them. “That’s what you’re doing. Thanks for taking over – you guys can do it!”

Johnson says she has noticed this past year the difference their work has made in the lives of kids receiving backpacks full of food.

“With being a cadet teacher and going to the elementary schools, and hearing some of my students talk about how they get the bags, and their excitement when it comes to Friday and they get to eat all this cool food,” she says. “I know we don’t see it, and I had the great opportunity of seeing it a little bit. Just remember that you are changing these kids’ lives.”

Now that her high school career is over, Anderson will attend Ball State University, where she plans to study accounting and Spanish, with the goal of becoming a small business accountant. Johnson is headed to Taylor University, where she will major in elementary education. After she graduates she plans to teach English in Hispanic and third-world countries, then return to the U.S. to a career in teaching.

Blessings in a Backpack is not the only mission-minded endeavor the girls have undertaken. Both Anderson and Johnson have traveled to different countries – Anderson has been to Mexico, Costa Rica and Belize, and together the two ministered on a trip to Honduras.

Anderson and Johnson hope the good work they’ve begun with Blessings in a Backpack will continue to grow and more youths will become involved.

“We’re not filling all of the need that’s in Huntington. I hope that we can keep growing in the schools and getting more kids and also more volunteers,” Anderson says. “It makes it fun for everyone and it brings people together, and it’s for a very good cause.”

“I would love to see it reach every elementary student that’s on free and reduced lunches, which is probably about 1,500 kids,” Johnson adds, pointing out that it costs about $120 per student per year. “To feed that many kids, we need the money, and a lot more donors and people sponsoring for these kids to have the food.”