Enter Faith United Methodist Church (UMC) in Grain Valley on Thursday mornings, and you'll hear a buzz of activity in a nearby classroom.
Set up in assembly line fashion, the students from Grain Valley High School’s Life Directions class are packaging 188 weekend meals for students throughout the Grain Valley school district, including all four elementary schools and the early childhood center. The group is also packaging meals for the middle schools and high school in the interim while another church who supplies those schools gets their program back up and running for the school year.
Faith UMC coordinates the BackSnack program, which provides a weekly pack filled with nutritious food for school age children in Grain Valley Schools.
Faith UMC Pastor Mike Cassidy said the number of students served in the program has skyrocketed in recent years. When the church began coordinating the program approximately ten years ago, around 30 students were being served. This past week, volunteers packed 188 BackSnacks. The program is funded by the church, along with support from individual donors.
Counselors at each of the district’s schools help identify students and families who could benefit from the program.
As Cassidy explains, the BackSnacks are designed to include items that kids themselves can manage.
“Everything is a pop top, and individual servings that kids can manage on their own,” Cassidy said.
Denna Coulson, is the volunteer coordinator of the program at Faith UMC. As a retired teacher, she knows how critical the program is to ensuring all students come to school on Monday morning prepared to learn.
Coulson has a team of volunteers who come together every Thursday to quickly pack, sort, and deliver BackSnacks to each school. The Life Directions class delivers BackSnacks to schools on the south side of town, while Faith UMC volunteers delivers to schools on the north side.
“We have church volunteers, parents, teachers, and the bus driver all here helping out this morning,” Coulson said.
The crew works quickly, completing 188 packs for students in less than an hour.
“These kids are wonderful,” Coulson said. They are a well-oiled machine. I just stand back and stay out of their way. They’re awesome.”
Life Directions teacher Araya Penfield said the partnership with Faith UMC allows her students, who are mostly 18-21 year-olds, the opportunity to give back while learning important skills.
“The focus of the class is to give them job skills, independent living skills, and experience working in the community,” Penfield said. “Working on BackSnacks and delivering them to each individual school makes it easier for them to see what they are doing is making a difference.”
Sam Laws is a student in the Life Directions class, and is clearly an experienced member of the team assembling packs.
“It’s fun to work at, and we do a good job working together,” Laws said.
Laws said it is hard work, but he is happy that he and his classmates “are doing work to help people.”
Cassidy shared that it was Sam that brought one of their newest community efforts into focus.
“Sam participates in a group called the Friendship Club, and they were recently in need of a new home,” Cassidy explains.
Friendship Club, which was founded 25 years ago by a Blue Springs mother of a child with special needs, is a social gathering for young people with special needs. The group meets once a month on Friday nights, and Sam is an active member.
While Sam is not a member of Faith UMC, when the Friendship Club had lost its meeting space and was searching for a new home, Cassidy said that Sam told them, “You can go to my church!”.
The Friendship Club now meets at Faith UMC monthly.
“It all started down here with BackSnacks. It’s amazing how those connections happened,” Cassidy said.
Cassidy explains their experiences with the Life Directions class and Friendship Club helped inform their next project in the community: the Good People Café.
The café will soon be housed in the former library space on Eagles Parkway and will be staffed by young adults with special needs.
“It can be hard to get employers to not just see people for the role they need filled, but for the person you are. We are excited to offer an opportunity for people with special needs to gain job skills and participate in the workforce,” Cassidy said.
Additionally, Cassidy said the new café will allow the church to do outreach to families who struggle to attend traditional worship services.
“80% of families with special needs family members are not in worship, so we’re planning a special night at the café for those families. It will be designed for them. Everybody there is in the same boat so there’s less pressure and less stress.”
Faith UMC supports the BackSnack program, but individual and business donors are also important to support the program as it grows.
Product donations are certainly welcome (list of commonly distributed items below), but monetary donations make it easy for volunteer coordinators to efficiently supply all BackSnacks with standard items.
To make a one-time or recurring donation to the BackSnack program, visit
Common BackSnack items (donations may be delivered to Faith United Methodist Church):
Mac & cheese (individual microwave servings)
Ramen noodles (individual servings)
Soup (with pop top cans)
individual peanut butter
Tuna (pop top or easy open packets)
Ravioli (pop top)
Pudding cups (shelf stable)
peanut butter or cheese cracker sandwiches
GVHS teacher Araya Penfield (center) works with her Life Directions class each Thursday at Faith UMC to pack and distribute BackSnacks for students in Grain Valley. Photo credit: Grain Valley News staff
Grain Valley High School student Sam Laws is just one of a crew of volunteers from the Life Directions class who pack hundreds of Backsnacks each week for Grain Valley students. Photo credit: Grain Valley News staff