There are many teenagers in Vernon County who reach out to help others. Some of those teens are members of Westby Coon Prairie Youth.
One way WCP Youth help the community is through their backpack program. Michelle Engh, who is director of faith formation at Westby Coon Prairie Church, said the students went to Minneapolis for poverty simulation retreat three years ago, and talked about needs in Westby. The youth identified there was a need help children who have access to school breakfast and lunch but not those meals on weekends.
Engh said she was familiar with a similar program in Madison. She said the WCP Youth’s idea was “widely supported.” Engh said initial donations came from members of the community, Power of 100, Organic Valley and WCCU to buy supplies to get the program established.
Each week, about five WCP Youth members gather at the church to fill 30 backpacks to give to elementary, middle and high school students who are food insecure. Backpacks (each one is numbered) are filled anonymously and enough food is packed to feed the number of children in each family over the weekend.
Engh said the backpacks are generally sent home with the youngest child in the family. The backpacks include two breakfast items, such as instant oatmeal, small individual boxes of cereal, granola bars and hot chocolate packets. The backpacks also contain two protein items such as canned spaghetti, peanut butter and crackers, soup, macaroni and cheese cups, and instant rice or noodle mixes. Fruit cups are included, and also a treat, generally it’s pudding cups.
“It’s not a lot of food,” Engh said. “It’s easy prep. Last year we had a number of students living in hotels, so the food needs to be able to be heated in the microwave to prepare.”
Engh then takes the backpacks to the elementary school, where school officials distribute them to the youngest child in the family. The backpack program started in January of 2015.
Vougard Latoja, a senior at Westby High School, is a longtime member of WCP Youth. Once the backpack program was established, Latoja wondered what the group could do to help students during the summer. The group decided to offer a sack lunch program to any student or youth. The summer sack lunch program, which started in the summer of 2017, was advertised through the schools. This summer 2,700 sack lunches were served.
Latoja said he likes helping people and “doing that little thing,” like a summer sack lunch program, is “nice.”
“If I was a kid and could grab a lunch it would make my day,” Latoja said. “When they get off summer school they can just grab it.”
Engh said summer school was held for two weeks in June and two weeks in August. Students would walk by the church to pick up their sack lunch and head to their other summer activities, such as those offered by parks and recreation. “It was really convenient,” she said. Sack lunches were delivered to the students who rode the bus.
The sack lunches were also available between the summer school sessions.
“The kids love to see Vougard and the other teens; it provides contact with cool people.” Engh said. “We get to know the kids over the summer. Their eyes open wide when the teens serve lunch. They idolize these guys.”
Latoja said peanut butter and honey sandwiches were favorites of students during the summer sack lunch program. Meat and cheese sandwiches and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were also among the offerings. The children were also served homemade chocolate chip cookies baked by the women of WCP Church. Seasonal fruits and vegetables were part of the sack lunches, as were calcium-rich foods such as cheese curds, cottage cheese and yogurt.
Many times children would eat their lunches on the church’s lawn. “It was really cute,” Latoja said.
Engh is in charge of securing food to stock the shelves for the backpack program and to fill the sack lunches. She gets food through Bethel Butikk and the Hunger Task Force. She also shops at local stores to round out the food offerings.
WCP Youth also lead a Sunday worship service once a month at Norseland Nursing Home.
“The youth lead the worship as much as they are willing,” Engh said. “It’s an activity residents look forward to interact with young people.”
“We talk with the residents and we make their day when we visit,” Latoja said. “Seeing them smile is great.”
Engh said many of the youth are musical and they share that with residents. During one visit, she said, a man who wasn’t communicative woke up and smiled during the singing of a standard hymn. “It is a magical moment when we connect with some music,” she said.
The youth also formed a euchre club, which meets Sunday nights. Engh said it’s primarily adolescent males who play the card game with older gentlemen in the community. She said there isn’t any judgement and it gives youth an opportunity to talk with adults. “It allows a lot of conversation. They take their skills to school to share.”
Latoja said there are about 15 people involved with WCP Youth this year. The group is open to any youth in the community, not just members of WCP Church. Engh said this year the group is being rebuilt and reinvented. She added the group is youth-driven.
“I provide the space, a meal and a topic of discussion,” Engh said.
Latoja said when he invites youth to the group he mentions Engh’s good cooking.
“With great food there’s great conversation,” he said. “It’s good to unwind if you start the week rough to go on Wednesday to let it all out. It’s a safe space. There’s no judgement.”
Every other Wednesday the teens meet at WCP and the other Wednesdays they gather at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church. WCP Youth also have fun. In the past they have gone tubing at Fort McCoy and saw a movie at the Rivoli in La Crosse.
“I am proud of these guys,” Engh said. “They are making a difference today.”