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Operation Backpack helps homeless kids get school supplies

The program will provide 18,000 homeless students with supplies to use throughout the school year.

Operation Backpack by the Volunteers of America --

Operation Backpack by the Volunteers of America -- Greater New York provides high quality backpacks and supplies for about 18,000 homeless New York City school kids. Photo Credit: Vlad Borimsky

Back-to-school shopping can be a challenge for any family.

There are detailed lists of supplies needed for kids at every grade level — sometimes by brand name. All those notebooks, binders, pens, markers, USB drives and calculators can add up to a pretty large bill.

It’s even more daunting for homeless students living in shelters across the city whose families may not have the resources to tackle those lengthy “must have” lists.

“The stigma of being homeless or poor is a hard one to bear,” said Rachel Weinstein of the Volunteers of America — Greater New York. “The idea of going in on the first day of school without anything … that’s when kids drop out of school.”

Weinstein started Operation Backpack 15 years ago to make sure homeless kids start the school year with all the supplies they need.

This week, volunteers will start sorting donations and filling backpacks for about 18,000 homeless students.

“We don’t give the stuff to the schools, we give it to the children two weeks before school starts,” said Weinstein. “They have time to get excited and the older kids have time to be relieved of the stress.”

Weinstein said donations come from corporations as well as individuals and even children who hold lemonade sales and other events to raise money.

“There’s something everyone can do,” she said.

And the group is picky about what it distributes. Backpacks with corporate logos, even if they are high quality, do not make the cut. After seeing that some budget crayons did not work well, Weinstein found a way to purchase Crayola brand.

“It’s all about respect for the kids and having dignity,” she said. “We wouldn’t give them anything we wouldn’t put in our own kid’s backpacks.”

That’s a big change from when Weinstein took over a small back-to-school drive that targeted companies for donations.

“What we got was a lot of junk,” she said. “We were getting things from 50 years ago that people didn’t get a chance to throw away — mimeograph paper, staplers that were rusty and stuck.”

Weinstein tapped into her own shopping experience as a parent and researched lists from different schools. The group also checks lists of recipients with city agencies to make sure they are going to the students living in homeless shelters.

“We send them backpacks that are not just for the first day of school but with supplies that will last them for awhile,” she said. “They are completely full. They can hardly carry them!”

For more information or to find out how to donate go to operationbackpacknyc.org.

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