NEW PALTZ, NY—A decade ago, members of the New Paltz Rotary Club committed themselves to ensuring students in the New Paltz Central School District (NPCSD) don't go hungry on weekends when other resources are scarce by launching a "Backpack Program." Ten years later, it remains a shining example of the club’s dedication and service to youth and education.
“The program has been a blessing for disadvantaged students,” explains New Paltz Rotary Club president Cathy Sifre. "You would not think a community like New Paltz has so many families who are food insecure, but there is a real need in our schools." Through the initiative, the club purchases and distributes more than 15,000 pounds of food a year to feed children whose families struggle financially.
Although free and reduced-priced breakfast and lunch programs offer consistent nutrition during the school week, students facing economic challenges may encounter food insecurity when school is not in session. This lack of access to adequate nutrition over weekends and school breaks has the potential to hinder their capacity to learn, develop, and flourish, explained Sifre. “Children who are food insecure may struggle to thrive,” she said. “We hope to help to remove that barrier for them.” 
The Rotary Club’s Backpack program was first initiated in 2013 by former New Paltz Rotarian Joe Fitzpatrick, owner of local trucking company, Lightning Express Delivery Service. Although not currently an active member of the club, Fitzpatrick and Lightning Express remain at the heart of the operation by transporting the food free of charge to Rotarian Toni Hokanson at Farmers Insurance in New Paltz, where it is stored until Rotary volunteers assemble the backpack food. The District’s transportation department then picks up the filled packs and distributes them to each of the four NPCSD school buildings where they are then discreetly distributed to roughly 80 children in need every Friday afternoon through the school district's social workers. It's a confidential program.
Each backpack contains a carefully curated menu of child-friendly, shelf-stable food, purchased from the Regional Food Bank of Northeast New York through the Feed America program. The menu changes weekly, guaranteeing variety and nourishment, and contains at least two breakfast items, three entrees, canned fruit, canned vegetables, saltines, and a snack. Every other week, Stewart's gift cards for a gallon of milk and a dozen eggs are provided.
The Backpack Program is supported by a range of fundraising efforts, with the Win-a-Bundle Raffle as its flagship event. The raffle, comprising 300 tickets sold at $100 each, provides participants with a chance to win $10,000. Ticket holders gather for a dinner event where they learn the level of their luck. The evening event also includes 50/50 drawings, a silent auction, a live auction, and smaller raffles, all contributing to the $25,000 annual goal of supporting the program.
This year, however, the event surpassed its goal and raised over $40,000, thanks to two anonymous donors giving $5,000 each, and five $2,000 sponsorships from the Devine Agency, the Law Offices of Robert F. Rich, New Paltz Community Foundation, Seakill Custom Home Builders, and RYCOR. Two donations of $1,000 each (from Garvan and Leonie McClosky and C2G Environmental Consultants) along with the wonderful generosity of the community helped to raise the remainder of the funds.  
The additional success of Win-A-Bundle comes at an opportune time since Sifre has made the expansion of the Backpack Program one of her presidential “focus” goals. "Our school social workers have shared that children come into their offices hungry," she said, which inspired the creation of a snack program. "We now also provide snack bins to help participating students with their hunger between school meals."
Also new this year is the addition of a Birthday Bag program. When Sifre asked her committee to somehow make the backpacks more special, Rotarians Jackie Triguero and Dee Jaye Kurta created the concept for the Birthday Bags. Helping ensure the students feel special on their special day, the bags contain cake mix, frosting, candles, plates, napkins, balloons, and ice cream gift cards. It is a small but heartfelt gesture to brighten a student's birthday,” explained Sifre.
The New Paltz Rotary Club’s commitment to youth extends far beyond the Backpack program. Annually, the club awards $15,000 to $20,000 worth of scholarships to graduating seniors, enabling them to pursue higher education and reach for their dreams.
A Grades 9-12 high school Interact Club is also supported. This student-led organization not only fosters leadership skills, but embodies the core Rotary value of "Service Above Self." These young leaders engage in acts of service within their school and local community, extending their impact to global initiatives.
Rotary International’s Youth Exchange Program is also supported, helping to broaden the horizons of NPCSD students by offering an opportunity to travel abroad, explore different cultures, and learn new languages. This program also welcomes students from other countries, bridging an international exchange of knowledge and experiences.
Additional local services extend to supporting the needs of the Family of New Paltz and funding the purchase of coats, hats, and gloves for students in need in all four schools. During the holidays, the club also purchases gift cards through its Fishes and Loaves initiative—which are distributed confidentially through the social workers at each school building—to support families in need.
On the international stage, the club supports "Friends of Guirgho," an endeavor to enhance classroom facilities and access to clean water and electricity in rural villages in Burkina Faso, West Africa. The commitment to education transcends borders, and the New Paltz Rotary Club is dedicated to making a difference worldwide.
The success of the Backpack Program and other New Paltz Rotary initiatives for youth relies on the generous support of the community. Anyone interested in donating to support the program can do so by sending a check to the New Paltz Rotary Club, P.O. Box 352, New Paltz, NY 12561, or, by visiting their website, Venmo at @NewPaltzRotaryFoundation-1, or PayPal at @newpaltzrotaryfoundation.
Community members interested in becoming involved in the New Paltz Rotary Club are invited to attend a meeting to learn more. New Paltz Rotarians meet every Thursday at 12:15 PM, alternating between in-person at Garvan’s in New Paltz and virtual meetings. For more information, call (845) 417-3547 or visit