Growing up in a low income neighborhood in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Marvin Callahan intimately knew the struggle of poverty from a young age. His father went to work every day and his mother stayed home to take care of the children. The family barely scraped by on his meager salary.
Callahan recalls going to Catholic school and having to bring in his tuition in a little envelope each month. His family was only able to pay a fraction of the full price.
"I remember this distinctly... The tuition was $29 per month, and my mom would send $1, or $3, or $4, whatever she had," Callahan tells The Huffington Post.
Still, Callahan says, he always had food to eat, even if it was the same meal each day. But today, for many families living in that same neighborhood, this isn't the case.
As a first-grade teacher in the Albuquerque public schools, where he's been working for 21 years now, Callahan has seen too many children coming to school hungry. When he first started working, Callahan says, he had no idea that so many kids and families were suffering to the degree of being homeless or unable to feed their children dinner each night.
It's an issue of mounting concern across the state of New Mexico, which has ranked number one in the US in childhood hunger for the past two years, with a third of children growing up without a consistent food supply. At Comanche Elementary School, where Callahan works, over 60 percent of students qualify for the federal free or reduced-priced lunch program, NBC News reports. And of the 87,000 children enrolled in Albuquerque Public Schools, 6,000 are homeless.
When his kids are hungry, Callahan says, he can see it on their faces.
"I look into my kids' eyes, and I can see that sadness and apprehension, and the discomfort of not being their powerful, strong, engaging little selves," he says. "Kids are boundless, but the ones who aren't being taken care of properly with proper nutrition and rest... you can tell."
Callahan does everything he can to provide for his students, at least during school hours. Every morning, he begins the day by asking the 18 students in his first-grade class if they've eaten breakfast that morning, and if they haven't, he sends them to the cafeteria for a meal or gives them a snack from his supply closet -- paid for out of his own pocket.
Sometimes, lunch is the last meal of the day for these kids. And while the school lunch program provides many students at the school with meals during the school week, the weekends are another story. Two years ago, Callahan created a backpack program to send kids home with food on Friday afternoon -- two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners -- to get them by until Monday morning.
"It's hard for me to go home some weekends when the kids are saying, 'I don't want to go home because I don't have anything at home,'" says Callahan. "We decided we were going to do something. We got some people together, discussed how we were going to do this, and got some ideas together about what a backpack program would look like."
The program, which Callahan runs with the help of school counselor Karin Medina and other members of the community, now sends 37 kids home with backpacks full of food each weekend. Retired teachers come in on Thursdays to fill up the backpacks with food items like breakfast bars, oatmeal, macaroni and cheese, beefaroni and sliced turkey -- things that the kids can easily put together themselves. On Friday afternoon, fifth-grade volunteers pass out the backpacks to the kids who have signed up for the program.
"It's a hustle," says Callahan. "One of the things we said when we started was, 'We don't know how we're going to sustain it, but we're going to do what it takes. That just means a lot of reaching out and asking."
Though Callahan has been pleased with the success of the backpack program, which has been receiving consistent donations from community members and local organizations, he's already hard at work providing more resources to students in need, including winter clothing and family support.
"You'd be shocked how many kids come to school, and you ask them if they have a coat, and they just don't," Callahan says.
He's also looking to provide support for parents through free dinners and educational events, like resume-writing and finance workshops, at the school in the evenings.
For Callahan, one of the most rewarding part of the backpack program is the way that it's drawn people together -- he and his wife, members of the school community -- in their efforts to help support local children in need. But ultimately, there's no greater reward than seeing his students grow and learn and thrive.
"You have to think of them as human beings... The loving, sweet, adorable first-graders in my classroom," he says. "I wish I could take them all home, but I can't. I just hope that when I get home and open my refrigerator and there's food in there, I hope that they have the same thing."