SANFORD — Volunteers at the Buddy Backpacks’ western Harnett office checked their politics at the door on Friday morning.
Piles of empty bags awaited and children receiving the food soon to be stuffed inside them could care less who any of the people doing the packing voted for.
“In that room, you have every party, from every walk-of-life,” Volunteer Murray Simpkins said. “Buddy Backpack is about the kids. All they want to do is pack bags to feed the kids, and that’s why we do it.”
Buddy Backpacks last month found itself in the middle of a debate over the role Harnett County should play when it comes to funding nonprofits. County commissioners brought up the topic during discussions over the upcoming 2021-22 budget. Initial drafts of the budget included funding for nearly two dozen nonprofits, totaling $63,500, with $5,000 allocated to Buddy Backpacks.
A back-and-forth between commissioners over what nonprofits should get funded and how much ended with a 3-2 vote to eliminate the practice completely. For agencies like Buddy Backpacks that rely so heavily on outside contributions, the decision by commissioners to pull $5,000 from a nonprofit that feeds hundreds of children every weekend on limited finances hurt.
“I was very upset,” said Maggie Nichols, operational manager at the western Harnett office. “It’s very disheartening to know that your leaders aren’t as interested in the children’s interest as much as we are. They’re there to serve us. I feel they should rethink their decision on nonprofits as a whole.”
Harnett County pledged to feed all elementary school students breakfast and lunch in the upcoming school year, a move Simpkins commended, but the need doesn’t end on Friday afternoon. Buddy Backpacks focuses its efforts on providing meals to children for the weekend, working closely with participating schools to direct resources to those most in need.
“They don’t feed them on the weekends, Buddy Backpack does,” Simpkins said. “We’re feeding them five days a week and that seems to be important as long as they’re in school, but it’s just as important that they eat on the weekends. That’s what we’re about.
“[Commissioners] aren’t bad people. I’m not trying to throw dirt on them, I’m just speaking out for Buddy Backpacks. I understand politics happen, but politicians need to start working together. This looks more like this is a political maneuver on some people’s part and it’s a move of passion on other people’s part, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. The politics of the whole thing doesn’t interest Buddy Backpack.”
Volunteers stocked and loaded more than 300 bags of food into waiting vehicles before the first person started to leave Friday, raising the total number of children fed this year to more than 12,300. The agency averaged 375 meals a week since the 2020-21 school year started.
“BBP is the only nonprofit that only focuses on children,” Simpkins said. “We don’t spend a dime of money anywhere else except gas for our donated truck. This is all about people just giving. No one is paid here. It is 100% a nonprofit. BBP is about the kids.”
As much as political leaders talk about growth in the western part of the county, Nichols said they certainly aren’t allocating the resources into the area to address it. The western Harnett office alone serves 8 schools in its coverage area, getting by on church donations, whatever the community can provide and Southeast Harvest Food Bank. A few thousand dollars may not seem like much compared to $200 million, but Nichols said money from the county made up a significant slice of the nonprofit’s operating budget.
“This is a part of the county that needs a lot more attention than what it gets, financially and in a lot of other resources,” Nichols said. “It’s needed. We’re going to stay here and we’re going to be here as long as we can be.
“There is a lot of teamwork that goes into it. There are a lot of moving parts. We have to contact guidance counselors, principals ... and we all work together to get it done. We work really well together.”
COVID-19 severely hampered Buddy Backpacks’ fundraising efforts, as the agency hasn’t been able to conduct much of anything since the pandemic struck last March, leaving already limited resources stretched that much thinner.
“That’s where a majority of our money comes from,” said Nichols, who felt a heads-up by the commissioners would’ve been appreciated. “It hurts. That money would be very helpful. We could’ve planned for it. That’s what hurt the most: we’ve not been able to raise money. [Commissioner Matt Nicol] should know. He lives out here. I hope that’s not the politics playing into this: one side of the county versus the other. We’re all trying to work together to feed kids. My hope is that they reconsider their decision.”
The people who volunteer their time in the far western part of the county, serving children miles away from Lillington, may have different political views.
They may not agree on voting laws or immigration, but everyone who walked through the door on Friday did so for the children on the other end of those empty bags.
Eliot Duke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 910-230-2038.