By Joanne Fowler
Updated February 13, 2012 12:00 PM

Times have never been quite this tough for Christen Melvin. Last fall the 31-year-old mom of three lost her split-level home in Gillette, Wyo., to foreclosure, returning home from her mom’s place to find the locks on her house changed. Now she, her fiance, Chris Cermak, and their three children are living with her mother; the couple cram into a bed in Melvin’s childhood room while Olivia, 8, Brodie, 5, and Ryder, 3, sleep sprawled on the couch and an air mattress in the living room. While Cermak, who runs a seasonal tree-trimming business, seeks out odd jobs, Melvin lies sleepless at night, thinking about which of her belongings she can hock to keep her kids’ stomachs full. “We’ve come close to not having anything,” says Melvin, her normally bubbly demeanor giving way to tears. “It’s constantly on my mind.”

The grinding stress seems endless but for one beacon of hope: Tama Clapper, 35, a minister’s wife and mother of four who has vowed to let no child in this town of 30,000 go hungry. She was moved to action when the principal at a local school, Hillcrest Elementary, told her that 50 children at the 430-student school went hungry on weekends-a local crisis that is playing out across the country. Today some 16 million children live in so-called “food insecure” homes where hunger is a passing or permanent part of life (see box). For Clapper, that realization was life-changing. “I had to do something,” she says. In August 2010 she joined up with the Louisville, Ky.-based nonprofit Blessings in a Backpack (see sidebar). Getting discounts from the local Walmart on nonperishable staples like peanut butter, boxed mac and cheese, and canned ravioli, Clapper and her 50 volunteers go on monthly shopping runs and then fill backpacks every week. From the original 50 kids, her effort has blossomed: She now provides some 400 children at 10 schools with enough food to get themselves-and often their parents-through the weekend. “Tama,” says Carrie Boedeker-Larson, a school social worker, “has been the biggest blessing.”

Despite her own stable existence-Clapper, husband Jeremiah, 37, and children Aaron, 13, Josh, 11, Micaiah, 9, and Gabbie, 6, live in a five-bedroom ranch home in the middle-class Westover section of town-she feels a kinship with kids who fall through the cracks. Having grown up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, she still remembers the pain and dislocation of her parents’ acrimonious split when she was 4. “I felt,” she says, “not cherished.”

On a recent Friday morning, however, a group of Lakeview kindergartners were feeling most important as they scrambled down the hallway, bouncing with excitement as they dove into their backpacks. “Yaaay, it’s peanut butter day,” said Christen Melvin’s middle child, Brodie, as he proudly pulled out a jar. “Popcorn! Sweet!” Adds big sister Olivia: “I love my backpack. It really helps our family.”

That such need exists in Gillette, an energy boomtown with an unemployment rate of 4 percent, seems puzzling at first glance. But the jobs are often short-term, and paychecks come and go. J.R. Gadd, 43, who moved from Tennessee for a construction job at a power plant, earned a good living for eight months; then the job ended, and he and girlfriend Tammy Miller, 40, had to drain savings to pay the bills. “Plenty of times I’ve said, ‘It’s either food or rent,’ ” says Miller, a part-time housecleaner and mom of four. “Getting that backpack meant we were going to eat.”

That’s all Clapper needs to hear to know her all-consuming mission is worth the effort. Having cut back on her babysitting work, which helps supplement her husband’s income, she has devoted upwards of 20 hours a week to meeting with school officials and Walmart managers, organizing fund-raisers and getting community groups onboard. One school became two, then five, then 10; her goal is 15 in Gillette and surrounding Campbell County. “Feeding kids is simple and inexpensive-it’s so easy to help,” she says. “And when they open those backpacks, they know someone is behind them whispering, ‘You’re important.'”