James M. Berklan

We receive a lot of nice notices at the McKnight’s offices and a lot of requests for coverage. When pitching a national publication, however, it’s sometimes tough to stand out in order to achieve coverage.

Until you offer a “man bites dog” story, that is. In journalism circles that means something counterintuitive.

Think of the grizzled old newspaper city editor barking at his cub reporter, “I don’t need another ‘Dog bites man’ story! Find me a ‘Man bites dog’ story!”

So here’s your long-term care “Man bites dog” story of the week.

One could reasonably think such care facilities would have their hands full tending to residents, whether they’re high functioning or low functioning. Donations of help would seem natural.

Kemper House, a family-owned facility in Strongsville, OH, however, is no typical Alzheimer’s and dementia care operation. Three years ago, it started giving back to the community around it in a special way — rather than merely soliciting help for itself and its residents.

Kemper House officials partnered with Blessings in a Backpack to help feed school children who otherwise would go without during the weekends. Every Thursday, Kemper House residents fill backpacks for low-income students and their families so they’ll have enough food to eat three meals a day over the weekend.

Last year, about 50 families were served every week. Kemper House officials used a grant from national Blessings in a Backpack sponsor Walmart and also held a variety of fundraisers to purchase food from the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.

“We were shocked” at how many families in the area were in need when starting the program, Kemper Vice President of Marketing Janice Nance told me this week.

Located just southwest of Cleveland, Strongsville is largely an upper-middle class town of about 45,000 people, Nance said. But there are pockets that tend to be “ignored.”

Not any more. At least not some of them.

“It’s a fairly simple process and our residents are stuffing the bags,” Nance said. “We tell people what we do, and they’re like, ‘REALLY?!’ We want to give back to the community and offer an intergenerational program.”

Kemper House appears to be unique to its area, and likely much farther out.

Nance said three years ago, the facility started distributing Wednesday backpacks to 75 children in grades kindergarten through sixth grade at Drake Elementary School. Eventually, someone realized that siblings and parents also were going hungry, so the distribution shifted to Thursdays and now includes entire families. Each family that takes part needs to opt in, via a permission slip through the school.

“We try to put a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables in. There are a lot of latchkey kids, so we use easy-to-make things. We have to be really creative with what we do,” Nance said.

On a good day, perhaps 14 or more of the approximate 80 Kemper residents take part in the backpack filling, Nance said. The Kemper family runs residential care facilities in Strongsville and Highland Heights for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients at all levels, from high-functioning to hospice.

Community volunteers also lend a hand with the food gathering and packing. During the holidays, Kemper chefs add cookies and themed treats.

By the end of this week, Kemper will learn how many families are in need this school year. Drake Elementary closed and merged with Whitney Elementary, so there’s a bit of an unknown element right now.

“If we have double the numbers, we’ll just double our fund raising,” Nance said. 

The for-profit Kemper House operates the nonprofit Blessings in a Backpack program as a separate entity.

The Greater Cleveland Food Bank inspects the food handling area annually, which has to be separate from the facility’s regular kitchen and food storage areas. But because the health department already inspects long-term care facilities, providers who want to do this type of charitable work have a leg up, Nance said.

She admits she was “intimidated” the year the program started, but the outside community has been so generous with support of fundraising car washes and rummage sales, among other aspects, things have run smoothly. Thinking creatively has always helped, she emphasized. For example, when area grocery stores and restaurants disappointingly showed no interest in helping out or offering discounts, the focus went to the Cleveland Food Bank, where a dollar stretches perhaps four times as far as regular retail outlets.

“We think we have all the kinks worked out,” she said confidently.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t unexpected twists every now and then. Some are uplifting.

“We’ll deliver 50 backpacks of food and they’ll come back and say, ‘Believe it or not, we delivered too much,’” Nance recounts. “We had two families who recently got jobs and said they didn’t need it any more.”

National Blessings in a Backpack Day is Sept. 15 this year.

Follow James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.