Raise your hand if you remember the Atari game "Pong." Like the little electronic Pong blip bouncing around the screen, so are thoughts in the human brain. These thoughts are ricocheting off each other in each of our brains, manifesting into 70,000 per day, according to many experts.

River Falls sixth-grader Ben Jaeckel was bored one day last month and he said he was scrolling through thoughts in his mind for something to do. While many middle-schoolers may catch up on episodes of "Vampire Diaries" or shoot some hoops, the thought Ben could not stop thinking about was, "I know there are a lot of people that need food and what can I do about it."

So, Ben emailed Meyer Middle School Counselor Gary Campbell, his student council advisor, and asked, "What about doing a food drive?"

"Ben totally took the reins on it," said Campbell.

"All you have to do is put your mind to doing it and have a little belief it will work out," said Jaeckel, "and it will roll from there."

Work out and roll it did. Ben and about seven of his middle school student council members collected 53 boxes of food (over 1,100 pounds) and donated it to Our Neighbors' Place for their summer Backpack Program.

"I felt like I wasn't asking; I was demanding," Jaeckel said. "It felt awesome that it all came together."


In 2010, Amber Tubre wasn't demanding, she was asking. Tubre, a volunteer for Our Neighbors' Place, politely walked into Dudley Zhe's guidance counselor office at Westside Elementary and had an idea from her group to provide food on the weekend for students and their families in need but they required his help. The idea didn't have a name and there were logistics to figure out but Zhe told Tubre, "I don't know why we wouldn't do that."

"It started out with five or six kids and it grew from there; it was a process in learning," said Zhe, retired since 2012 and now living in Minneapolis spending time with his three grandchildren.

The program chose to use regular school backpacks so students could discreetly transport the food without feeling embarrassed, hence how the program name was established.

"There's not a whole lot of red tape," said Zhe, "it gave me a chance to engage more with the parents and you have no idea how many parents said it was so nice to know someone cared."

Tubre and Mary Jo Sutton helped kick start the program. Romaine Hanson helped coordinate the program for the next couple years and then passed the torch to Darcy Boock for the next four years. Now, Nicky Thompson coordinates Our Neighbors' Place Backpack Program serving 114 River Falls students each week filling up 2,067 backpacks for a grand total of 14,642 pounds of non-perishable food each year.

The Backpack Program idea has spread to other Twin Cities' metro school districts over the years and the idea may have gone national in the spring of 2015 when, then, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was visiting a North St. Paul elementary school on a Friday. Duncan saw a ton of backpacks being filled with food in the school's lunchroom and was so impressed with the program, he said he was taking the idea back to Washington, D.C.

The original Backpack Program in River Falls recently had its 10th anniversary and one volunteer in the driver's seat since Day 1 is B.J. Grant, delivering the backpacks from Ezekiel Lutheran Church, where they are filled, to each school in the River Falls’ district. The Backpack Program comprises 20 volunteers annually, donating over 500 hours each year.

"Without them, there is no program," said Our Neighbors' Place Executive Director Shelly Smith, “and Nicky Thompson does a fantastic job working with all our volunteers to make this program possible week after week.”

Black Ties

Smith said Our Neighbors' Place is in the middle of their Black Tie Affair. The only reason I even knew Our Neighbors' Place was responsible for the Backpack Program was I received a donation request in the mail and put two and two together. The Black Tie Affair card writes, "Your absence is requested," which prompted my curiosity and I opened the card. Instead of paying for tickets and Champagne Chicken my wife wouldn't eat anyway, I was asked to donate those dollars to Our Neighbors' Place and my wife can fry up her own olive loaf and stay at home (the lady likes her olive loaf). That's some easy red-tapeless fundraising to fight hunger in our own town.

Our Neighbors' Place is trying to raise $12,000 in the next few weeks but it might not be as easy this year with quite a few annual donors possibly out of work.

"We're hoping for the best," Smith said.

The Backpack Program is under the umbrella of Our Neighbors' Place and Smith says the organization provides help and hope to anyone who is struggling with hunger or homelessness.

"I think we are going to be a little busier than normal this summer," said Smith, "the sooner people ask for help, the better we're able to help them because they haven't gotten to emergency state yet."

Here's the part where I'm going to pull a page from sixth grader Ben Jaeckel's book of fundraising. I'm not going to ask you to donate to Our Neighbors' Place; I'm going to demand it. It's easier than playing Pong. Go to www.ourneighborsplace.org and click on the "GIVE" link if you have the ability to do so.

One of your 70,000 thoughts for the day courtesy of Jaeckel is, "It feels awesome when you help people."