Nov 13, 2019
Backpacks filled with love
A mother sits on a folding chair in a cramped food storage room, just off the cafeteria of the Rebecca Johnson Elementary School in Springfield.
She speaks lovingly of her 14-year-old daughter, whose autism is compounded by a list of other maladies.
“My daughter has severe sensory issues on top of everything, which means she can only tolerate a certain diet,” she says.
“Basically, I am her only advocate. And you have to understand my daughter is my life. I’m also a victim of domestic violence, and on top of that, a cancer survivor.
“Right now, my daughter and I are living in a small apartment at the YWCA. I heard about the backpack program basically through word of mouth.
“I made it my business to find this woman and all I can say is thank God I finally did.”
Joyce Lesieur’s face lights up with grateful affection for this single mother young enough to be her daughter.
“I’m so glad you found me,” she says.
On the table between them is a blue a nylon backpack that will soon be filled with a weekend’s supply of food to help sustain the young student and ease her mother’s anxiety.
Joyce Lesieur likes to say she is 69 and a half, a veteran of the food services corporation, Sodexo, who has finally settled into her life’s calling. In 2016, a Sodexo manager steered her away from retirement to become the face of the company’s “backpack program” throughout the Springfield public school system.
“The backpack program is a silent partner helping to support Springfield Public Schools Students and their families,” says that manager, Mark Jeffrey.
The district, which has one of the highest percentages of economically disadvantaged students in the state, offers free breakfast and lunch to its 26,000 students while they are in school.
The concept of the backpack program is simple: Send a child in need home on Friday with a backpack stocked with a balanced array of food to help supplement whatever the child’s weekend fare might be.
“In Springfield, children get breakfast and lunch free every week. The idea of the backpack is to offer them balanced choices when they’re not in school,” Joyce explained.
“It’s not necessarily food for the whole weekend,” Joyce said, “and it’s not food for the whole family. But it is there to help supplement what a family may not have on hand for Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“For instance,” she said, “I try to make sure I balance out the protein with cans of soup or tuna. There’ll be rice and beans, chili, chicken, mac and cheese…at least six or seven items in a bag,” she said. “Of course, the grant money we’ve been able to receive from folks like Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts has been enormously helpful in that I’m able to purchase more food at the Food Bank, and put more items into the backpacks.”
“We’re committed to supporting the health of all Massachusetts residents,” said Jeff Bellows, vice president of corporate citizenship and public affairs at Blue Cross. “Addressing food insecurity is an important part of that goal. We are grateful for Joyce’s work, and everything the Springfield Public Schools system does to help vulnerable families in our community.”
Joyce Lesieur is the embodiment of the adage, “We make a living by what we make, but we make a life by what we give.”
She lost a son just over a year ago to an overdose and six months later the best friend who gave the eulogy for her son’s service succumbed to the same scourge.
“We all struggle with the curve balls life throws at you,” Joyce said. “I have had my fair share, but to ever think I could call a job a blessing, this would be it.
“About 13 years ago, I made some serious life changes, hoping that someday I would be able to retire, or at least take it a little slower.
“Here I am today,” she said, “pushing 70 years old, and retired to a perfect job.
"I’m not only helping others, children in particular, but my job has helped me in more ways than I could ever explain fully.
“To think that 15 years ago I would say my job is a blessing is something I could never imagine. And yet here I am, grateful to have a job, let alone one that has been such a lifesaver for me.”
She fills more than 300 backpacks that go out across the city every Friday.
“That’s when the cooperation of a school helps a great deal," Joyce said. “I just want to make sure the kids and families who could benefit from the program, get the benefit of it.”
She is grateful for the assistance she receives from a young group of Food Corps volunteers in Springfield.
“How could I not when there are families in need?” says Food Corps service member Alexander Colon. “Especially when I myself was in the program years ago. I know what it’s like to need that extra help to survive.”
The backpack program is anonymous. Neither Joyce nor the Food Corps volunteers who help her fill those backpacks know the identities of the recipients.
The referrals are made largely through adjustment counselors at each school who provide Joyce with the number of backpacks needed.
Joyce Lesieur’s life’s work right now is filling that need.
“I have to take care of it,” she says. “That’s just how I feel. There are a lot of hungry kids in this city. If I can do something about it, I’m going to.”
PHOTOS OF JOYCE LESIUER BY CHRISTOPHER EVANS