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Operation Backpack kicks off this month

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As a surge of grassroots volunteering sweeps the country, more and more folks are choosing to devote their time and energy to help those in need, as evidenced by the thousands who stepped forward after Hurricane Sandy’s devastation and, more recently, after the Oklahoma tornadoes.

Giving back to those less fortunate can also benefit children by helping them to appreciate what they have. So, if you’re dealing with “bored kids syndrome” this summer, how about getting them involved in some community work? After all, charity begins at home. Through participating, parents can find a fun and fulfilling summer activity for the whole family.

Operation Backpack: A great family project

Fast forward to September, and before you know it, it’s back-to-school time. As a parent, can you imagine sending your child or teen off to school without a backpack, filled with the essential supplies they need to help them get off to a good start?

This summer there are more than 20,000 children living in homeless shelters, and every year, thousands of homeless students in the city face a new school year without those basic supplies.

Volunteers of America’s Operation Backpack helps close this gap by collecting and distributing thousands of new backpacks full of grade-specific and essential school supplies to those kids. Last year, more than 13,500 backpacks were distributed!

And volunteering at Operation Backpack has become an annual back-to-school tradition for many children over the years.

Spear-headed by Rachel Weinstein, Operation Backpack came to be when she decided to re-brand the small effort, back-to-school drive 10 years ago.

Rajani’s story

Rajani was a high school junior when she and her family fell on hard times, and the only way they could remain together was to enter a shelter. The shelter was not a Volunteers of America shelter, but while there, the children were instructed to get their backpacks for school. Rajani didn’t want to go, thinking she was going to be given a “shelter backpack,” but her mother insisted she take her little brother to get his.

Rajani says the quality of the backpack she received was totally unexpected, and to this day she has the dictionary and thesaurus.

“I couldn’t believe someone cared about me enough to do this for me — give me a backpack that had everything I needed to go to school,” she said. “It gave me the incentive to go to school and I decided that even though I was sitting in a shelter, I could still have a good time … and that year, I excelled. It propelled me to apply for the scholarship I received.”

Rajani has since graduated from Fordham University.

“The success of Operation Backpack lies with the generosity of the New York City community,” says Weinstein, Vice-President and Chief Development and Communications Officer at Volunteers of America-Greater New York. “I don’t necessarily think of community service as ‘giving back,’ so much as I just see it as good citizenship — the right thing to do; helping to make the world a better place.”

The backstory

Weinstein says she was working as a consultant 11 years ago when her daughter Madeline attended school at Metropolitan Montessori, across the street from Volunteer of America’s headquarters on W. 85th Street in Manhattan. One of the moms who happened to work at there asked Weinstein if she would plan an employee recognition event. Then, when she joined full-time, she had responsibility for the volunteer function — and the project going on at the time was the back-to-school drive.

One summer, while shopping for young Maddie’s school supplies, Weinstein noticed “the difference between what my daughter would be taking to school and what our kids in shelter would have — a plastic bag with perhaps some pencils — was a huge disparity, and I vowed to develop a more targeted and comprehensive approach the following year. This was 2003.”

Her goal was an ambitious one: a backpack filled with a specific list of supplies recommended by public school teachers, for every one of the 1,100 homeless children served by Volunteers of America-Greater New York.

“We would ask the general public to donate their gently used backpacks (and ask the corporate community to donate supplies),” she said.

“Well, as I learned, no child’s used backpack is in any shape to recycle for another child, and next year I established a new standard — we would only accept new backpacks that we would put on our own kids’ backs,” said Weinstein, adding, “We also wouldn’t accept branded backpacks (backpacks emblazoned with a company’s name). For that same reason we didn’t indicate on or inside the backpack that it was donated by Volunteers of America, or otherwise associated with Operation Backpack. We rebranded the campaign that year, Operation Backpack.”

Then, Weinstein says, she got Maddie involved with Operation Backpack.

“Not to expose her to volunteerism, initially — but because I was desperate for help and had already worn out all my adult volunteers, after three days of sorting supplies into backpacks. The public’s response was so much greater than anticipated, that I wasn’t prepared for the hundreds of backpacks that had continued to come in, even after the drive officially ended,” Weinstein recalled.

So, she called Maddie and asked her if she could come in next morning to help, and to see if she could enlist any friends. “The only person she could rustle up quickly was Julian, a friend from the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus, who lived in New Jersey. Well, Julian and Maddie worked a good eight hours straight; quality controlled, labeled and sorted every backpack (about 300). By the end of that day they were nearly too exhausted to walk to dinner. Seeing how quickly and conscientiously they had worked, I realized kids were a good source of help for Operation Backpack, and it reinforced for me the appropriateness of engaging kids in this particular volunteer effort,” Weinstein said. “After seeing what an incredible job Maddie and Julian did, an annual tradition was born: one day during sort week each year would be dedicated to youth volunteers.

Leveling the playing field

“The point after all, was for these [homeless] children to go to school that all-important first day, looking and feeling more like their housed classmates,” Weinstein explained. “We had to educate the public not only about the needs of homeless families and the devastating impact it has on a child’s education, but the concept of ‘normalizing’ life for these kids; helping them look and feel like other kids.”

And most people got it. She said they understood and supported the objective to help these children fit in; to level the playing field.

“What was most important was that the children arrive at school with their new backpack full of new supplies.”

Weinstein says seeing the children open their backpacks is heartwarming, and Volunteers of America is grateful for the generosity of the New York City community.

“One of my mantras is: ‘It’s never too early to begin a tradition of giving.’ For it to really stick though, philanthropy — in whatever form it takes — needs to be part of the fabric of the family,” says Weinstein.

“Parents need to model kindness and volunteerism, starting at home: phone calls to grandparents just to say ‘hi’ or giving one’s seat on the bus to an elderly passenger; offering to stop by a neighbor’s apartment to play with their pet. These are all simple activities that can generate good discussions about the value of kindness, caring for others and putting that caring into action. Volunteering outside of one’s home, takes it a step further,” she says.

How you can help

Volunteering begins when individuals, families, and various groups shop for and donate backpacks and school supplies, organize drives, hold fund-raising events, and take it upon themselves to spread the word about the needs of homeless children.

“The key to a good education is showing up and showing up prepared,” says Seth Diamond, former New York City Department of Homeless Service Commissioner. “Operation Backpack helps ensure that homeless children have the best possible start to their school year by making certain they have the proper supplies, and we are grateful to [Volunteers of America] for that.”

According to Weinstein, who juggles her super-busy personal life with her important role with the organization, a number of families said they take their children back-to-school shopping for their own school supplies and have them select and fill a backpack for a child who might otherwise go without.

“A family can hold a party or other event, and ask everyone to bring specific school supplies then hold a mini-sort day, resulting in a number of filled backpacks (which they can then bring to our office),” she suggests. “Kids have raised money and donated it to Operation Backpack, which is very helpful during sort week, so we can replenish supplies we run out of.”

Students at Hunter College High School formed a club, Hunter Backpack Organization, and for several years raised close to $2,000 each year, through raffles and other creative methods. Some of those kids have volunteered for years but are about to leave for college this year.

Operation Backpack, which began as a project to outfit only Volunteers of America children, has expanded to include nearly every homeless or domestic violence shelter in the city — about 150 shelters in total.

Duane Reade stores operate as official drop locations and post signs inviting the public to drop off their donations of backpacks and school supplies. For grade-appropriate supplies and drop locations, visit www.OperationBackpacknyc.org. Donations can be made from July 15 through Aug. 9. Financial donations can still be made after Aug. 5.

Tammy Scileppi is a Queens-based freelance writer and parent who loves New York City. She has been a contributing writer for several community newspapers and writes book cover copy for a well-know publishing company. Her consumer-focused articles appear on the AngiesList website, and other stories by her have been published in the New York Daily News and the New York Post.

Updated 4:45 pm, July 9, 2018
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