Leslie Ortiz, an educational diagnostician at the Vernon Parish School Board, has been selected as the Southern Region Volunteer of the Year for the 2011 National 4-H Salute to Excellence Awards program.


Leslie Ortiz, an educational diagnostician at the Vernon Parish School Board, has been selected as the Southern Region Volunteer of the Year for the 2011 National 4-H Salute to Excellence Awards program.
As a regional recipient Ortiz will be provided a travel scholarship to participate in the 2011 Southern Region 4-H Volunteer Forum to be held at the Arkansas 4-H Center, Little Rock, October 6-8, 2011, with her basic registration costs covered.
Ortiz, who last year organized a backpack program to help provide food to needy Vernon Parish students, says she doesn't know who nominated her for the award, but she's honored to have been chosen.
"This is so overwhelming to me," said Ortiz of the award. "I think it's just what people do. When you see a need you take care of it."
Ortiz, who has been volunteering  for 4-H for less than 10 years, said she is "kind of a newbie." However, with two kids involved in 4-H, Angela, 17, and Nicholas, 12, plus her experience as the advisor at Rosepine High added to her current position as president of the Advisory Committee, Ortiz is certainly no stranger to 4-H and its ideals.
Her position with the Advisory Committee gives her the opportunity to participate in a variety of fundraisers and much more, she said. But Ortiz is fairly certain it's the backpack program that tipped the scales and landed her the award.
After reading a book that inspired her to come up with ways to provide more service to her community, Ortiz, who has been working in the Vernon Parish school system since 1999, decided to send backpacks stuffed with kid-friendly food home with children over the holidays.
School food programs, such as lunch and breakfast, help provide a majority of the nutritional needs for children. When the students are not in school, however, they may not get the nutrition that they need for proper growth and development. Sending these students home with a backpack filled with nutritious, nonperishable foods and snacks helps provide them with some of their dietary needs when school is out for the holidays.
The food items include non-perishable and child-friendly items such as fruit cups and healthy snacks that children can readily consume without having to prepare the food.
The first set of backpacks, about 57 in all, went home with children over Thanksgiving break in 2010. By Christmas, the project had ballooned to 100 backpacks.
Ortiz said she's received thank you cards and feedback from school counselors to encourage her. The children, by all reports, are thrilled to receive the backpacks.
Just before spring break, teen leaders stuffed 60 more backpacks for this week's holiday.
This time, Ortiz was able to personally hand over backpacks to children in need, an experience that brought tears to the eyes of many.
"They were so thankful and it really touched her heart," said Kem Johnson, LSU AgCenter Extension Agent-4H in Vernon Parish. "It makes helping even just a few truly worth all the effort!"
Now, armed with a healthy living grant from the Rapides Foundation and supported by donations from churches and individuals and the sweat of 4-H Teen Leaders, Ortiz expects the backpack program to grow.
Growth won't be without obstacles. Already, Ortiz has a storage problem. Many of the items she collects, Ortiz stores either in her car or at her home, which can get overwhelming, she said. In addition, securing enough backpacks can be tricky. Initially, Ortiz had asked the children to return the backpacks; however, she soon realized that the backpacks themselves were treasured by many children. Now, Ortiz is accepting backpack donations; even gently used backpacks are acceptable, she said.
Ortiz will also receive $200  to donate to a local 4-H program of her choice. There's no question where that money will go, she said.
Donations of food or backpacks can be brought to Ortiz at the Special Education Center across from the School Board Office, or to the 4-H Office. Monetary donations can be made out to Vernon Parish 4-H for the purchase of items to complete the backpacks. For more information, call 239-9041 or 239-3231.