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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

United Way honors Nohava's heart for the hungry

Monday, January 28, 2013

(Sentinel photo by Magdalene Landegent) Brenda Nohava stands outside the packing room for the Le Mars Back Pack program, an organization she started which provides nutritious snacks to hundreds of students in Le Mars. Nohava was honored this past weekend as the United Way's Paul Olson Outstanding Volunteer of the Year.
It all started with a little boy asking Brenda Nohava if he could share her food.

She was attending an after school activity for one of her own children at the time.

Nohava shared her snack.

And the next time, she brought an extra protein bar for the little boy. And the time after that.

But Nohava realized she was just seeing the tip of the iceberg -- a big problem called hunger, right in Le Mars.

Because of her actions to tackle that problem and her passion for helping those in need in the community, she was named this year's recipient of the Paul Olson Outstanding Volunteer of the Year Award this past weekend.

"Brenda took it upon herself to meet a need in our community by ensuring children getting free or reduced-priced lunches in our schools during the week did not go home without food for the weekend," said Jeff Stanley, incoming 2013 board chairman for the Le Mars United Way.

Stanley announced Nohava's award Saturday at the Le Mars Area Chamber of Commerce's annual dinner.

The award is presented annually to a local volunteer who has helped the Le Mars United Way by demonstrating leadership, generosity and commitment to the community.

This is the 14th year for the award, which was named in honor of Paul "Ole" Olson who was instrumental in getting the Le Mars United Way launched.

"We always look for someone who is a standout in the community, doing things above and beyond," said Molly Hewitt, campaign and communications manager for United Way of Siouxland.

In 2009, Nohava began creating a local organization similar to a program she'd heard about in Sioux City which sends bags of nutritious snacks home with children after school.

The Le Mars Back Pack Program was born.

It started out small the following January.

Volunteers packed 140 bags of nutritious snacks bought with donated dollars for students at two schools.

Today 377 children from all over Le Mars receive snack bags each weekend.

All of the elementary schools in the community participate, along with Le Mars Day Care, Le Mars Head Start and Le Mars Early Head Start.

Any elementary students who qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch can participate in the Le Mars Back Pack Program, as long as their parents give permission.

Stanley announced the United Way award Saturday, but Nohava was unable to attend the dinner, so she was presented the honor before hand.

"I accept this award on behalf of everybody who has ever helped with the Back Pack Program," Nohava said. "We couldn't do this alone. There is no way we could do it without everyone's help."

In a year's time, Nohava estimates at least 1,000 volunteers help out with the Le Mars Back Pack Program.

Each week, groups of people help pack the snack bags in a large room connected to the Nohava family business.

"We have basketball teams come, 4-H groups, service groups, banks, corporations, all help pack bags," she said.

Each school sends someone to pick up the snack bags and bring them to the school as well, Nohava said.

The program also couldn't operate or grow the way it has in the past few years without the help of United Way, she added.

The Le Mars Back Pack program has received $39,500 in three years from United Way.

"The United Way has been a huge asset to this program," Nohava said. "Without them we couldn't send home the hot food item. And we wouldn't be able to send home extra food on holidays."

In 2010, the program added a food item students could take home and microwave for a hot meal, such as chicken noodle soup or macaroni and cheese.

That year, the program also expanded to offer bigger bags of nutritious food for students to take home on the Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter break, adding items like full-size boxes of cereal and jars of peanut butter.

That's in addition to the regular items like popcorn, applesauce, granola bars, crackers and more.

Nohava said she and a network of "coupon hunters" help find the best deals and keep the price of each student's snack bag at about $2.50 each week.

Still, it adds up to about $1,050 of food each week -- paid for by donations such as the money from United Way.

When she has the opportunity, Nohava is quick to speak at United Way campaign events, sharing the impact of the Back Pack Program.

"That's the least I can do," she said. "The United Way has given us a lot."

Nohava said the teachers and staff at the schools have also helped make the program work.

"There was a little bit of a stigma with receiving the snack bags, about not having much money," she explained. "I talked to the teachers and said, 'it's up to you guys to make this go smoothly so no one's feelings are hurt, whether they're participating or not participating in the program.' And they've done a wonderful job explaining it to students."

The school that seemed to have the most stigma about the Back Pack Program now has the most increase in numbers of students participating, Nohava said.

The Back Pack Program also brings awareness about hunger being a real issue for Le Mars students, Nohava said.

An anonymous student survey showed that 70 percent of students in the Back Pack Program reported they have to go to a food pantry, church or family member's house when they run out of food at home.

Some students indicated they have to wait until their parents get paid to buy groceries, and other said they "won't have any groceries."

Nohava had a man stop by and say that the 9-year-old foster daughter placed in his home used to depend on the Back Pack snack bags to get through each weekend.

"Her mom was a meth addict, so there wasn't food at home. The money went for drugs," Nohava said. "Every Friday, when she got the bag of food, that was her salvation. It was her survival. It was hers. No one could take it from her."

Nohava has also had mothers thank her for providing extra food for their children when they could not.

She will not forgot their words.

"As long as I'm here, this program will be here," Nohava said. "If the community keeps supplying this, it'll be here a long time."

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