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Operation Backpack 2013 gets homeless school kids ready for school

Jasmin K. Williams | 7/11/2013, 12:52 p.m. | Updated on 7/11/2013, 12:52 p.m.

Thousands of New York City schoolchildren living in homeless shelters will be able to start the school year with new backpacks and new grade-specific school supplies thanks to Operation Backpack.

In partnership with Volunteers of America-Greater New York, every Duane Reade location throughout the five boroughs will be accepting public donations of backpacks and school supplies. More than 140 companies, schools, community, civic and religious groups participate in the annual program. Last year, the program collected and distributed 13,500 backpacks to children in more than 100 shelters. This year, the goal is to collect and distribute 15,000 new backpacks.

Rachel Weinstein, vice president and chief development and communications officer of Volunteers of America-Greater New York, speaks of the importance of the program. “We need to do everything we can to ensure the children in our care stay in school and earn a high school diploma, which is essential to breaking the cycle of family homelessness. A new backpack and school supplies can make the difference between a child being excited to go to school and refusing to go at all, so Operation Backpack fills an important need. With the average cost of a filled backpack hovering around $81, we can relieve the financial burden that many parents face when making decisions for their families.”

Operation Backpack started in 1999 as a back-to-school effort to help get school supplies to kids living in New York’s homeless shelters. The initiative grew significantly with the support of the corporate community. In 2004, it was officially named Operation Backpack and today is so successful that it is held at Volunteers of America (VOA) locations nationwide.

The program has effects that go far beyond receiving the gift of a backpack. Kids also learn about the power of helping others.

VOA staff member Yvonne Webster once lived in a shelter with her children. She shared with the AmNews how the simple gift of a backpack brought home the strong message of helping others.

“My eyes were opened to the power of volunteering when I saw the joy on my kid’s faces with their brand new backpacks and school supplies. The people who took the time to buy these supplies and pack them into backpacks made my kids and me feel so good. I was happy that they were ready to start school with their new backpacks. Volunteers of America and their drive Operation Backpack are amazing,” she told the AmNews.

“Seeing my kids so happy was great, and I knew they were prepared for school. I was so grateful, and I wanted my kids to show their appreciation, so I had them write notes to the staff thanking them for the backpacks and school supplies. It’s nice to know that people see how important it is for kids to have what they need for school. And to know people went out of their way to donate the things and pack the backpacks for them, it means a lot to me,” said Webster.

Webster’s is a story of success. Today, she is a student herself and is looking to receive a business administration degree in the next two years.

The Operation Backpack 2013 drive kicks off on July 15 and continues through Aug. 9. You can drop off a backpack at any participating Duane Reade location. To find out more about Operation Backpack NYC, visit www.OperationBackpackNYC.org. For a list of grade-specific school supplies, go to www.OperationBackpackNYC.org/fill.