Philanthropic spirit helps feed schoolchildren

Tucsonan Nina Straw is a proponent of the ‘Blessings in a Backpack’ program to feed schoolkids on weekends.

Nina Straw grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in Milford, Conn. The concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) was part of her daily life. “My father lived Judaism,” she told the AJP. “He was a gentle, quiet man who walked the talk. He taught us to live by the Golden Rule.”

As an adult, she and her husband, Dale, a veteran, put flags on the graves of Jewish veterans at Evergreen Cemetery. But Straw, 58, who’d moved to Tucson with her husband in 1988, was looking for something more.

In January, on a day off from her job as a medical billing specialist, Straw watched “The Dr. Oz Show” on television. “I discovered that millions of American children go hungry. I learned about a unique program designed to feed elementary school children,” she says of the national nonprofit Blessings in a Backpack program, which has contributed to better test scores, improved reading skills, more positive behavior and increased school attendance.

Immediately after hearing about the program, Straw walked over to Bloom Elementary School, which is directly behind her house. “I wanted to make a difference,” she says. Bloom Elementary made a three-year commitment to Blessings in a Backpack, which will start this August. It is the only school in Tucson involved in the program.

Every Friday, needy students will receive backpacks filled with foods that require little to no preparation, such as granola bars, peanut butter and tuna. The children will return with their backpacks on Monday ready to learn, Straw says.

When she first became involved in the program, “a neighbor and I decided to walk our immediate neighborhood. We collected enough food to feed four families over the Christmas weekend,” she notes. “After that, my neighbor and I and two other families adopted a Bloom family and bought toys, clothes and food for them.”

The backpack program costs $80 per year per child; Straw and other volunteers have raised about $6,000 so far — including a $3,000 commitment from Albertsons grocery store — enough for 75 children.

Straw walked door-to-door to 250 houses soliciting donations. She collected handfuls of change, which add up, she says. Other neighbors volunteered to stuff backpacks. She is currently seeking a car dealer to donate $80 to Blessings for every car sold.

Coincidentally, Bloom Elementary School was named in honor of Clara Ferrin-Bloom, a former teacher who was the oldest member of Temple Emanu-El at the time of her death in 1973.

Straw says her family’s desire to help others may have something to do with her grandparents’ narrow escape from Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. “It took them two years to walk from their home [to get out of the country]. My father told us how they hid in the snow and the Cossacks would sometimes come very close.”

The deadline for donations to Blessings in a Backpack is July 15 for the 2012-2013 school year. Contact Nina Straw at ninastraw@yahoo.com or visit blessingsinabackpack.org and designate your donation to Bloom-Tucson.

The Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Jewish Community Relations Council sponsors a similar program at Homer Davis Elementary School as part of “Making a Difference Every Day: The Homer Davis Project.” Contact Mary Ellen Loebl at 577-9393 or visit jewishtucson.org/section.aspx?id=4for more information on the Homer Davis Project.