NISKAYUNA — While kids score baskets on Sunday at Hoops for Hunger, Jessica Brennan hopes to score jars of applesauce, peanut butter, soup and boxes of pasta.
Brennan runs Nisky NOW, a group that ensures needy Niskayuna school children have enough to eat on weekends. The basketball event is a food drive, designed to help stock the program’s pantry at the Niskayuna school district headquarters.
As part of the event, boys and girls from Niskayuna’s travel basketball teams will play in the Niskayuna High School gymnasium from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. When kids are not on the court, they will help unload groceries from donors’ vehicles and place them inside a Niskayuna firetruck. Santa Claus also will lend assistance.
Those who bring a single food item will be admitted to watch the basketball games free of charge.
Niskayuna NOW — the NOW stands for Nutrition On Weekends — has been helping kids and their families since 2014.
Brennan, a social worker at Rosendale, started the program. When she began working at Niskayuna, her work took her to all five elementary schools in town.
“At Hillside, there was a family that needed extra help with food, so we started a Google Doc with a bunch of teachers, and we each bought the same item every week, packed it and sent them home with the kids,” Brennan said, “Then, in another building there was a need. And in another building there was a need.”
Brennan said teachers were glad to help. But she began looking for another way to fund the program.
She pitched a funding plan to the Niskayuna Community Foundation — she remains a member of that group’s board — and the foundation responded with a $500 grant to the school district, earmarked for the program.
Now, Nisky NOW survives on donations from community members. And while it is an affluent community, Brennan said there are still children who need a little extra help.
“We’re at 13 percent of students living under the poverty rate with free and reduced lunches,” Brennan said. “We have families reach out weekly, either referred to us by teachers, or maybe their own child has seen a poster at school or maybe the parent saw the poster or heard about us and reaches out.
“We have parents who are injured and can’t work, who have cancer diagnoses and can’t work because of chemo or are working two or three jobs and just can’t make ends meet.”
Nisky NOW is similar to the Schenectady County “Weekend Backpack” program, which provides backpacks full of food to kids in need each weekend. In Niskayuna, bags full of groceries are delivered to kids’ homes on Thursdays or Fridays.
Twenty families are currently on the Nisky NOW roster. Brennan offered other facts about the group, which recently was incorporated as a 501(c)(3). Those who donate to Nisky NOW — a not-for-profit group — can claim their donations as tax deductions.
- Every dollar donated goes into the program, which is staffed by volunteer shoppers, packers and drivers.
- The goal is to alleviate hunger, but also to alleviate food anxiety, which happens when kids worry about whether or not they’re going to have enough to eat.
- Nisky NOW has no barriers to participation. There is no paperwork or application process. Families can receive assistance quickly.
- Focus is on food and personal care items.
- The program also provides food over vacation weeks and during summer break.
- Nisky NOW is applying to become an official food pantry, which would allow it to buy food from the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York at advantageous prices.
Brennan said the program can use non-perishable items, such as applesauce, cereal, boxed macaroni and cheese, granola bars, peanut butter and canned pasta foods, such as SpaghettiOs.
“Things that are kid-friendly and easy to make,” she said.
Cash donations are also welcome. Brennan said checks can be made out to Nisky NOW Inc. and sent to P.O. Box 132, 1737 Union St., Niskayuna, 12309.
If people want to make large food donations at other times of the year, they can email Brennan at [email protected] The group also has a Facebook page.
Brennan has seen results from the program’s good deeds.
“I get phone calls from people crying, thanking us,” she said. “They’re not only grateful for the food, they’re shocked that people in the community care and are just doing this to do it. They feel very supported.”