Nonprofit takes up reins of annual backpack program

GREENFIELD – Mental Health Partners of Hancock County will take on the duties performed by Backpacks of Hope, a 3-year-old organization that provides backpacks and supplies to people facing homelessness in Hancock County.

Founders Jim and Cathy Matthews decided in August to seek new leadership for the organization they created in 2014, citing Jim Matthews’ progressing illness. Jim, who uses a wheelchair because of a neuromuscular disorder, was diagnosed in January with multiple sclerosis as well and said he and his wife have decided to turn over the reins to BackPacks of Hope to Kim Hall, executive director of Mental Health Partners.

Greenfield’s chapter of Backpacks of Hope has provided some 500 backpacks to people without homes of their own, with the Matthewses each working about 10 hours a week to source the backpacks and contents, organize them and find recipients.

Hall was already familiar with the program.

She has worked with Backpacks of Hope to provide bags with food, clothes and toiletries to hundreds of county residents every year during Feast of Plenty, an annual event held Thanksgiving Day each year at the Hancock County 4-H Fairgrounds, she said. Mental Health Partners’ program, Gift Lift, provides a shoe box of food and supplies to people in need, and the two programs have pooled their resources before, she said.

“We’ve traded items year ’round,” she said.

Hall will shadow the couple during this year’s Feast of Plenty to learn how the organization’s leaders handle its biggest annual event, she said.

She’ll join Eastern Hancock High School senior Laurie Eells, who earlier this month organized an event to pack the backpacks ahead of the Feast of Plenty, said Eastern Hancock teacher Debbie Grass. Grass also was part of the Leadership Hancock County team that last year helped develop an inventory system for the program.

It’s bittersweet to let go of the work they’ve done for the past three years, but the husband-wife team is relieved to know Hall will continue the work they began, Jim Matthews said.

“I think this is a good organization to take it over,” he said. “I think it will do a good job of representing what we’ve started.”

The Greenfield nonprofit will end its affiliation with the founding organization, but will carry on the work under Mental Health Partners’ guidance, Matthews said.

Backpacks of Hope was founded in 2011 in Fort Wayne and now has chapters in Kokomo, Greenfield and Indianapolis, said founder Shelley Septer of Fort Wayne. The organization provides about 1,000 backpacks filled with new or unused supplies per year to people in homeless shelters, halfway houses and other temporary housing situations, Septer said.

Septer said she’s sad the Matthews family must give up its work with Backpacks of Hope, but she is happy Hall will carry on the legacy of the organization, founded after the accidental drowning death of her son, John “Zachery” Septer, who often worked to help people in need.

“Zachery had an amazing heart and an amazing spirit,” she said. “The more people we can help in his memory, the better.”

If you go

Backpacks of Hope, now led by Mental Health Partners of Hancock County, will hand out backpacks full of living essentials at the annual Feast of Plenty.

Feast of Plenty begins at 11 a.m. and continues until 3 p.m. Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 23, at the Hancock County 4-H Fairgrounds, 620 Apple St., Greenfield.

The celebration provides dine-in, meal delivery and carry out Thanksgiving meals in addition to providing backpacks with clothes, food and toiletries for people in need.

Author photo
Rorye Hatcher is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at ​317-477-3211 or rhatcher@greenfieldreporter.com.