The volunteer executive director of Food Backpacks 4 Kids has been helping children on the KP and beyond for decades.
Karen Jorgenson received the 35th annual Key Peninsula Lions Club Citizen of the Year Award for 2018 during a standing-room-only celebration at the KP Civic Center March 30.
The 18-year Vaughn resident has served as the volunteer executive director of Food Backpacks 4 Kids since it was founded 10 years ago. She will retire at the end of June.
The award is sponsored by the KP Lions Club, which solicits nominations from the community for anyone whose work—professional or volunteer—deserves recognition for its impact on the Key Peninsula.
The annual celebration is open to the public, but the award recipient is chosen through secret ballots cast by Lions Club members. “It was a very tight race,” said club President Hal Wolverton. “I can’t even begin to describe the caliber of the nominees we had this year.”
“When I looked at the roster, I was just overwhelmed by all the wonderful things that are happening on the peninsula,” Jorgenson said. (See “35th Annual Citizen of the Year Award Nominees,” KP News, March 2019). “I was very surprised that I was given the award.”
“It’s so well-deserved,” said Laurel Shultz, program director of Communities in Schools of Peninsula. “I can’t say enough about Karen. She’s a doer, she’s innovative and kind, and one of the most generous individuals I’ve ever met.”
FB4K came together out of a group of community church members who met in the fall of 2008 to work together to address some of the community’s most pressing needs. One of the attendees knew of a food backpack program in Belfair.
“We all thought that would be a wonderful thing to do in our community,” Jorgenson said. “There’s all kinds of research on this. If the kids are hungry, they’re not going to learn, and if they’re not getting the right kinds of foods, their brains aren’t going to grow to the point where they have the ability to learn.
“We all had our churches start collecting food and then we had to decide where we were going to do this and who was going to run it, and I said, ‘Our church has space where we can pack the backpacks, but I’m not going to be in charge!’” she said.
She’s still in charge.
Food was packed initially at the Key Peninsula Lutheran Church in Lakebay, but the program soon spread.
“We packed nine backpacks in March of 2009,” Jorgenson said. “By the end of the year we had 45 kids a week and the next year we had 500.”
“I would not have been able to do this job without all of the volunteers and especially my husband, David, of 54 years.”
Each backpack contains up to eight pounds of food to supplement a family of four for a weekend, or about 3,000 pounds each week, including snacks, fruits and vegetables, and ingredients for meals together with recipes on how to prepare them, depending on available funds.
“We didn’t like the idea of just one child in the family having food to eat for a weekend, so we put in enough food to supplement a family of four,” Jorgenson said. “We’re just about the only backpack program in the country that feeds the whole family.”
After the backpacks are packed, they are delivered to the schools by volunteers and later distributed to students.
“Right now, we’re serving 400 backpacks a week,” Jorgenson said. “Last year we also put in food pantries in the high schools and middle schools, so that the kids can have grab-and-go foods and have access all during the week. That’s added another 100 kids, so now we’re feeding over 500.”
FB4K has expanded not just with backpacks but by distributing sack lunches at Key Pen Parks during the summer, giving away crockpots to families (together with recipes and ingredients) and partnering with CISP to stock school food pantries and assist its summer literacy program where students get a hot lunch with a three-hour reading lesson at every elementary school on the KP, and Harbor Heights and Discovery in Gig Harbor.
“It’s been a wonderful evolution over time,” said Shultz. “They started on the Key Peninsula and now serve kids on the Gig Harbor peninsula. I was at the meeting at Children’s Home Society where Karen brought up their crockpot program in front of United Way, and now they are taking that on and doing crockpot programs, so that idea spread from the Key Peninsula to serve all of Pierce County, which is really remarkable.”
FB4K is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with an annual budget of $300,000, 46 percent of which comes from individual donors. It has one paid employee, a part-time office administrator, and 75 volunteers.
“We have such wonderful people in the community giving us support and I think that’s because we have a fabulous board, we are transparent, we are honest, we are trustworthy. It’s neighbors helping neighbors,” Jorgenson said. “I would not have been able to do this job without all of the volunteers and especially my husband, David, of 54 years.”
But the couple has been working to help children for almost all of their lives together.
Jorgenson is a licensed social worker who taught child development and psychology at colleges and universities in Michigan and Ohio. She was the first foster parent recruiter and trainer in Nevada, and went on to create therapeutic foster care programs in eight different states. “It was up to me to develop the training curriculum and recruit everybody,” she said. “I would go in and recruit the foster parents, train the foster parents, license them and then hire a director to help run the program before I went on to the next state,” she said.
Jorgenson later served as executive director of the National Foster Parent Association for 10 years.
She and her husband have four daughters, two of whom they adopted. They fostered more children than Jorgenson can remember—literally.
“How many children? This goes way back. I don’t know. The very first foster child we had was 14 and she came in and out of our lives many times. Years later, I got an email at the NFPA office saying ‘I’m looking for my mom and you’re doing the kind of work she would be doing: Are you my mother?’ She’d caught up with us again and we flew her out to visit. When she got back home, she talked to her husband and then she called us and said, ‘I need my mom and dad back in my life, will you adopt me?’ And so, at the age of 52 we adopted her.”
Jorgenson leaves her post at the end of June. She will be succeeded by Richard Miller, a KP resident and science and art teacher at Key Peninsula Middle School (and contributor to KP News).
About retirement, Jorgenson said, “I am going to create a butterfly and hummingbird sanctuary in my backyard. I’m still growing things.”
Jorgenson’s backyard spans 3 acres.
FB4K will be celebrating its 10th anniversary May 18 at the Inn at Gig Harbor from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com.
FB4K can be reached at 253-857-7401 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, go to foodbackpacks4kids.org.