In December of 2014, Sandie Nagel was delivering hats, gloves and scarves to children at Baltimore’s Tench Tilghman Elementary/Middle School, when she asked a social worker how many homeless students the school had. Nagel expected the number would be between 10 and 15, but was taken aback to learn that the school had over 100.
“I was blown away,” said Nagel, a resident of Pikesville and member of Shaarei Tfiloh Synagogue. “And I just looked at her, and I said I’m going to start doing Weekend Backpacks for these kids.”
Nagel is a co-founder of Weekend Backpacks, a nonprofit that enlists a small army of volunteers to pack meals for children and their families. The organization serves families at 38 schools and one recreation center.
Nagel borrowed the idea from the project of a bar mitzvah boy who appeared on “The Ellen Degeneres Show,” she said. The concept has fascinated her for a long time.
“We feed hungry homeless kids, that was our original mission,” Nagel said. “Today’s mission is we feed hungry kids and their families.”
Nagel, 84, grew up in Philadelphia, the daughter of Anna Van Gilder Millstein, a florist, and John Millstein, an accountant, and sister of Harold Millstein. She had a bat mitzvah, something she noted was out of the ordinary during the 1950s.
Nagel attended Towson State College and later received a master’s degree from Towson State University.
She married Fred Nagel, who died in July of 2020, and with whom she founded Weekend Backpacks. Nagel moved to the Baltimore area with her husband in 1962, after he found work with Westinghouse Electric Corporation. She worked as a teacher for different schools, including Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, Torah Institute and Krieger Schechter Day School.
During the 1980s, Nagel worked for the Baltimore Jewish Times as an independent contractor, contributing to its Around Town section, while her husband worked as a photographer for the JT.
Nagel has two sons, Louis and Russell, and four grandchildren.
Nagel’s Weekend Backpacks officially began operations in March of 2015, she said. Today, a single donation from Nagel’s Weekend Backpacks program typically consists of enough food to feed a family of three for six meals over the course of a weekend. She explained that, before the pandemic, Baltimore students could rely on their schools to provide breakfast and lunch on weekdays, and could even get these at pickup centers after the pandemic hit. However, the weekends proved to be something of a gap in this system, which Nagel’s organization sought to fill.
The fact that Nagel’s program provides meals for more than just the individual child also helps it to stand out from groups doing similar work, she noted.
“I spent two months speaking to people who do similar projects all across the country,” Nagel said. “Mostly, the bags they give feed one child six meals. My feeling was no child lives in isolation.
“We have seen children stuff a peanut butter sandwich into the pockets of their pants to take home because their mother was hungry,” Nagel continued. “So we feed the entire family, and we always have.”
Today, Weekend Backpacks has more than 300 volunteers packing nearly 1400 bags in a typical week, with each bag consisting of 18 separate meals, said Barbara Spector, a board member of Weekend Backpacks. Thirty-eight drivers deliver the meals, Nagel said. The meals can include fresh fruit or canned fruit, cereal, bread, peanut butter, pasta, vegetables, tuna fish and Spam. As a nondenominational organization, the volunteers include Jews and non-Jews. The majority are residents of Pikesville.
Weekend Backpacks is able to do its work thanks to donations from organizations like H&S Bakery, Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation and the Maryland Food Bank, said Spector, a resident of Stevenson and member of Chizuk Amuno Congregation. Nagel emphasized that the leadership of Weekend Backpacks President Stew Dettlebach and of Vice Presidents Alan Taylor and Leslie Monfred has been crucial to its success.
Nagel noted that a strong sense of camaraderie is present among those who volunteer.
“People come in there and they see people from their high school days, or where they first lived,” Nagel said. “And it’s almost like a sisterhood/brotherhood.”