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Packing for a Purpose

5 Questions with Sue Shirek, Executive Director of

Northlands Rescue Mission’s Backpack Program

By Marla DeFoe

Tell me a little about yourself and how you got involved in the Northlands Rescue Mission:

I have been the Executive Director of Northlands Rescue Mission since May of 2017. Previously, I worked as the Executive Director of the shelter in Crookston, MN for three years. Prior to that, I was a police officer for the City of Grand Forks for over 25 years, and I retired from that position in 2013. In law enforcement, you only provide a short-term fix to problems, and we would see the same people, with the same issues, over and over again. In our work at the Mission, we can look at the underlying issues that keep bringing people back to the same circumstances. We get to work with our clients to interrupt the cycles, change patterns of behavior, and most importantly, we can offer grace and second chances.

I got involved with the Mission when I started working there part-time many years ago, as a side job. I knew I was called to be there. It stayed in my heart, and when I retired from the PD, I knew that if I took on another job or second career, it was going to be in homeless services.

With my work in law enforcement, I spent several years as the School Resource Officer (SRO) in the three middle schools. I saw kids who were hungry. I saw families who struggled, who didn’t celebrate the holidays at the normal time, but told their kids they would celebrate when they could gather the funds in a few months. I spoke with parents who worked hard, but just couldn’t make ends meet and didn’t always have food available. I know of families who literally had no food in their home. Food insecurity, housing instability, and homelessness are issues that impact so many people in our community and region. Even though Grand Forks has had low unemployment, we have struggled with the issue of poverty. People are working, but they are not making a good living.

Can you give a brief overview of the Backpack Program?

The Backpack Program provides food for the weekend to kids who are eligible for free and reduced lunch and whose parents sign them up for the program. The Mission either purchases food items from local retailers or receives donations of those items. Volunteers come to the Mission each week and fill bags containing 10 shelf-stable items: 2 juices, 2 snacks (nut-free), 2 main meals (Ramen noodles or mac and cheese), 2 breakfasts (oatmeal packets), and 2 fruit cups. Those bags are placed in totes, and the totes are delivered to the schools. On the last day of school for the week, school staff give the participants their bag of food to put in the backpack. The student leaves with food for the weekend to help until they are back in school and can access their free and reduced meals. EERC is our partner in delivering the totes to the schools, and on Monday, we go back to the schools, pick up the empty totes, and start all over again.

How many children benefit from the program?

There are approximately 2,900 kids who are eligible for the program in grades K-12. That is a significant number of hungry kids and struggling families. When I started at the Mission, we were serving kids from the four elementary schools, with the highest percentage of free and reduced eligible students. Then we added a fifth school, and we were trying to decide how to add more. When the pandemic hit, we continued to send the bags to the schools so that kids could get their food when they picked up their Friday lunch during the remote learning times. We saw the impact of COVID. We wanted to be able to feed every student who was in need, but did not want to make a financial commitment we couldn’t keep.

When the pandemic hit, taking a risk somehow seemed easier. Everything that was once normal and routine was in upheaval. We decided to take a huge leap of faith. We made the decision that we needed to work to feed as many eligible students as possible. We went to the schools and got on board with every elementary school. We also offered the program to the middle schools. We invited community partners, like businesses and churches, to pitch in and help. This is a community issue, not a Mission problem. It takes a community solution to make a difference. We now serve over 1,000 kids each week via bags packed at the Mission. In addition, a couple schools have been “adopted” by different churches in the community, and they purchase the food and pack the bags each week. We also provide food every week to the Mentor Center for the kids who go there for homework assistance and tutoring. Last year, over 34,000 bags of food left the Mission and went home with a child in need.

How can someone donate to the program?

There are several ways you can donate. You can purchase food directly and drop it off at the Mission. You can do a food drive at your business or place of worship. You can make a monetary donation, pledge recurring donations, and even offer payroll deductions for the program through your business. The Mission will be hosting a “Back the Pack” food drive August 22-26, so people can drop off food items as a kickoff to the school year. It costs approximately $100 to feed a child for a year, so you can “adopt” a child, or several students.

You can place one of our posters at your place of employment, etc. It has a QR code on it, and people can donate to the program via the code. You can find us online at or mail a donation to: Northlands Rescue Mission, 420 Division Ave, Grand Forks, ND 58201.

For information on how you can help, contact Korrin at 701-772-6600, ext. 215, or

What other programs does the Northlands Rescue Mission have to help feed the community?

At Northlands Rescue Mission, our new tag line is “More than just a shelter.” We provide three meals a day for our clients. We provide 2 meals a day to the public-at-large. Since the start of the pandemic, those meals have been served via takeout containers out the door of the Mission. Last year over 14,400 meals were served.

We also have a food pantry and a mobile food pantry. We used to open our pantry for 1 ½ hours, twice a week. Now we are open Monday through Friday 10am-4pm and Wednesday 10am-7pm. We also go out to locations in town, and in a four-county region, with our mobile food pantry. Not everyone is able to get to a pantry, or get food from the pantry, to their home. We take our pantry from the Canadian border through Pembina, Walsh, Grand Forks, and Nelson counties. We work hard to make a difference. G

// To view the full story, check out the digital issue here

PHOTOS SUBMITTED BY Northland Rescue Mission

From Issue 2, 2022


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