Article by Sue Baldani

Photography by Provided by SilverBackks

Food insecurity can be found in every state, every town and every neighborhood. Fortunately, for those who are struggling in Topeka, SilverBackks, a 100% volunteer operation founded in 2001, has been feeding the hungry through two programs – SilverSuppers and Silver Sundays.

Its partnership with Shawnee County Parks and Recreation allows SilverSuppers volunteers to serve these meals in the Central Park and Hillcrest Community Centers in Topeka. SilverSuppers serves children from newborn to 18.

“We have found through our work in the community that lots of kids are hungry, and this is a way that we can help families in our community,” says Hannah Schumacher, one of its lead volunteers. “As of the beginning of September, we have served 4,609 meals just at the Central Park location.”

There are no sign up sheets and no questions are asked; kids just need to show up at one of the two locations Mondays through Thursdays. “We serve kids who come and hang out at the community center after school, kids who come to the community center for activities, and kids who live in the neighborhood,” she says. “They can just come at supper time and eat at the center or take their food home and eat.” 

Depending on the volunteers who are preparing the food on different nights, meals can range from meatball subs and pasta to chicken with mashed potatoes and tacos. And, there are always peanut butter and jelly and meat and cheese sandwiches.

Volunteers also try to include drinks, some fruits and vegetables and other extras such as dessert or chips. Much of it depends on what the volunteers bring that night and what is donated. The organization also partners with Harvesters Food Pantry, so they use what’s available there as well.

SilverSundays, which runs from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm, is open to everyone and held at the Lundgren Education Center. “The meals are usually prepared in the lead volunteers’ homes and then brought to the center,” says Katina Lonergan, another one of its lead volunteers. “Since we have a partnership with Harvesters Food Bank, we usually try to utilize food that is available to make it as cost efficient as possible. So, one Sunday we might serve spaghetti and the next Sunday we could end up serving pork chops and mashed potatoes.”

A hot meal is served that day and then a cold sack lunch is also given that can be consumed at another time. Everything is cooked and served by volunteers. Some are there every week, while others may sign up for one Sunday a month or once every few months, depending on their availability. She says they average about 50 meals a week, but their numbers are constantly growing.

Volunteering with SilverBackks is very flexible and easy. “There are links to our different programming with descriptions of our needs, and people can just sign up and provide that particular need,” says Hannah. There are no other strings attached. In addition to preparing and serving meals, we also have signups for people who would like to provide maybe two dozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or if individual organizations such as a church group, a business, or Scouts would like to provide entire hot meals.”

She adds, “People don't have to make a long term commitment. It's great if they do, but if they just have some time next month to volunteer, they can do that, and then maybe a couple months later.”

Preparing and serving meals is also a great family activity. “My husband and I have a son, Oliver, who is in high school, a daughter Lucy, who's a 5th grader, and a 3rd grade son, Theo,” says Hannah. “They know Wednesdays are SilverSuppers night - it's just part of our schedule. Once you try it, you'll probably get hooked.”

Adds Katina, “I’ve been volunteering with SilverBackks since July of 2013. I have two kids - my oldest, Jonas, is 14 and my youngest, Dexter, is 12, and they’ve grown up watching me go at least once a month to volunteer.”

They ask that all younger volunteers be over the age of 12 and accompanied by an adult, so Jonas was very excited when he turned 12 and could volunteer alongside his mother. During the pandemic, Dexter also helped by putting together sack lunches and doing other behind-the-scenes activities.

“Our volunteers always come through, even during the pandemic,” says Hannah. “When it wasn't safe to serve or eat meals inside, we were outside wearing masks and handing out to-go meals because we knew the kids would be hungry.”

Preparing and serving meals are their greatest needs, but there are many other ways to support the nonprofit. Monetary donations can help purchase food, and donations of food are also extremely helpful. It can be as simple as buying a jar of peanut butter and/or jelly when you're grocery shopping. Another way to help is by choosing SilverBackks with Amazon Smile when ordering. 

“Along with the meals, we like to hand out baked goods, so people can either bake some muffins or cookies or whatever they like,” says Katina. “Those are individually packaged and we'll put those in with the lunches.”

She adds, “We also have a great partnership with PT’s Coffee. Over the years, they’ve provided us with all the coffee that we serve during SilverSundays.”

In partnership with Topeka Public Schools, its SilverSuccess program provides full-sized hygiene items to children and families, and during the third SilverSundays of every month, SilverBags full of travel-sized hygiene items are handed out. So, donating toiletries is another way to help with its mission.

In addition to the meal programs, SilverSuccess and SilverBags, SilverBackks also has its SilverBras program that provides new or gently used bras to those in need.

 “SilverBackks is very good about seeing a need in the community and trying to then fill that need,” says Katina. “And you know, it can be any one of us in need at any time.”

 To find out more about SilverBackks, its various programs, and how you can help, go to https://silverbackks.org/.

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