Family Connections helps with meals during at-home school

  • Debra Stipe helps pack one of nearly 80 boxes sent out by Lumpkin County Family Connection's Backpack Buddies program last week.
    Debra Stipe helps pack one of nearly 80 boxes sent out by Lumpkin County Family Connection's Backpack Buddies program last week.

As is the case anytime school is out of session, when schools were forced to close their doors as a result of the coronavirus, it left hundreds of kids across Lumpkin County wondering how their lunchroom meals would be replaced.
Fortunately, the community has answered the call, much in part because of the caring hearts and helping hands of people like Greg Stipe.
“There’s a lot of families in distress with what’s going on with coronavirus, so we decided to come out and help them have enough meals for the next nine days,” Stipe said. “[We] wanted to come and make sure the people are fed.”
Stipe and his wife Debra are two of many volunteers that regularly help out with Lumpkin County Family Connection’s Backpack Buddies program, designed to feed children who rely on school lunches each weekend when school is out. For Brigette Barker, Executive Director of Family Connection, having a foundation already in place and being put in practice regularly made all the difference for such an extraordinary situation.
“Our Backpack Buddies program has about 60 volunteers already, so we had a great network where we already had the ability to communicate with families in need and we had a volunteer force who already knew how to help, how to show up, what to do,” Barker said. “It’s just been the biggest blessing that we have a volunteer group here who know how to do this, who know how to unpack, who knows what we need to do and they’ve showed up in full force today, because we have probably about triple the number of families than we normally serve that we’re trying to get food out to.”
With help from regular volunteers, teachers who would normally be busy teaching and unable to help and members of the Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Office, the Backpack Buddies packed over 8,000 meals on Thursday.
“It’s really just been wonderful, the whole community has come together and we’re hoping to send out large amounts of food for about at least nine days worth of breakfast, lunch and dinners are going out to about 300 kids,” Barker said.
Lumpkin County School Superintendent Dr. Rob Brown knows the importance of the situation.
“We know that many students rely on school meals to get them through the week,” he said. “With almost 50 percent of our students qualifying for free or reduced price meals, the need is evident.”
For fragile families, the effects of COVID-19 are especially difficult.
“We have a lot of families that have grandparents raising grandchildren that are on a fixed income so they struggle sometimes to make ends meet, we also have lots of single parent homes where they’re not getting assistance from the other parent and they really struggle to make ends meet regardless of the fact that they’re working multiple jobs,” Barker said. “So we’re hearing from these families, of course they’re scared, trying to stock up on extra food and not knowing if they’re going to be able to work and get a paycheck in the weeks to come, but we’re also hearing from many families in Dahlonega who are servers and their hours are being cut and they’re not sure how they’re going to continue to provide and where they may have normally been fine, now they’re very scared. We’re also hearing from families who are scared to leave the home, but need food to feed their children.”
It’s times like this where Stipe feels it’s the most important to come together.
“One of my kids was very skeptical about me coming into a closed quarters environment with a whole bunch of people and yet it just seems like it’s the kind of thing we need to do in these tough times. Come and take a little bit of risk,” he said. “Maybe it’s a little scary, but it’s the right thing to do for my neighbor.”
Luckily, Family Connection wasn’t the only one offering free lunches for kids missing meals due to the school closures with Nick Alicea of Yahoola Creek Grill offering to help.
“When I was growing up, I needed the lunches and breakfasts from time to time when my family was struggling so I figured I have the opportunity and the means to do it and pay it forward,” he said. “So if it’s one kid or a hundred kids or a thousand kids, whatever I can do to help is what I’m trying to do.”
Alicea put the word out and was “overwhelmed” with donations of both food and money to help the cause. However, the restaurant announced it was temporarily closing its doors to the public on Saturday, thus putting the initiative on hold just three days in. Alicea said on the outstart that if he could no longer help he would donate the remaining food to local food banks, so the donated food would still help others in the community.
This week, Lumpkin County School Systems took to the task, beginning its efforts to deliver much-needed meals to its students and anyone else under the age of 18 that filled out the request form they posted online last week.
“We are delivering to 750 students in 300 locations…,” Brown said. “Ensuring that each of our students has food during this most unique of times is very important to us and we will do whatever we can to make sure they are fed.”
The form, which can be found at, must be completed by 4 p.m. each Wednesday to request meals for the following week.
On Monday, an update was posted to the school system’s website, stating that beginning next week, meals will only be available for pick-up, instead of being delivered:
“Due to the number of meals and households we are prepping for week one, we are moving to pick-up only for week two. When signing up for March30-April 3, you will select the school you want to pick-up from on that Monday and Wednesday. You can choose any of our four school locations; it does not matter where your children attend.”
Families can choose to pick up meals from Long Branch Elementary, Blackburn Elementary, Lumpkin County Middle or Lumpkin County High School. Pick up will be open at each of these schools from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.
For anyone in the community looking to help out, Brown suggests directing efforts to Family Connection.
“Because we have so many school system employees who are committed to helping children and are unable to perform their normal duties, we have great help at this time,” he said. “Our Family Connection can use help from the community in the form of non-perishable food and monetary donations.”
Barker welcomes the help.
“The best thing that people could do to help right now is to donate food, non-perishable food
items, meal-type items, protein-type items, peanut butter, jelly, pasta, pasta sauce, canned vegetables, meals in a box, and there are shopping carts in front of the front doors of the Lumpkin County Middle School and any donations that could be left in those shopping carts will definitely go to help us provide emergency food to any family that requests it,” she said.
For more information on Lumpkin County Family Connection, visit its website at