A new, well-stocked backpack can help any student start the school year off on a positive note.
But it’s especially important for New York City students who live in homeless shelters and facilities around the city. Their parents and caregivers may not have the funds to fill extensive lists required by schools.
That’s why Operation Backpack steps up and provides about 20,000 backpacks free to homeless students.
Each of the bags is full of high-quality supplies based on school lists reviewed by the nonprofit and includes items such as dictionaries, geometry kits and USB flash drives along with pens, pencils and notebooks. The backpacks are customized for students by their grade level.
“We reach as many kids as we can,” said Rachel Weinstein of the Volunteers of America – Greater New York, who started Operation Backpack over 15 years ago. “That means every child in any shelter in the five boroughs.”
The group accepts donations of supplies and funds. And if any of the donated supplies are deemed low-quality or sub-standard, they are swapped out for ones purchased by Volunteers of America, Weinstein said.
“If the folders are paper, we take them out and put in heavy-duty plastic ones,” she said. “If watercolors are falling out of their containers, we will replace those.”
All the backpacks are vetted as well. They must be sturdy, even if that means setting aside flimsy ones with beloved children’s characters.
The idea is to provide homeless students with top-shelf supplies to help fight any stigma they might feel.
“We don’t want the kids to ever be embarrassed,” Weinstein said. “We will always default to the most rigorous supply list, sometimes more than what they need.”
The group depends on volunteers to help sort and fill the backpacks. Weinstein said over 350 companies provided roughly 2,500 volunteers. The NYPD’s Transit Division chipped in by handing out Operation Backpack information cards and accepting donations at more than a dozen stations, she said.
Volunteers recently finished their work and the backpacks are currently being handed out to students.
“We want to get them into their hands two weeks before school starts,” Weinstein said. “This way the younger kids get excited and the older kids can be relieved they will have everything they need.”