Children In Shelters Are Getting A Special Gift Thanks To New York City Program

Volunteers of America is fighting the cycle of poverty by prioritizing what matters: school.

During her work for Volunteers of America, Rachel Weinstein was touring New York City shelters when she noticed something odd: the students leaving for school didn't have backpacks.

"I turned to the staff and just said 'oh, where are their backpacks?' Just anticipating they would say 'they're already on the bus,'" Weinstein, the founder of Operation Backpack, told A Plus. "But the staff looked at me like I was crazy. It turned out these kids were going to school without a pencil, with nothing."

Weinstein helped create Operation Backpack a year later. In its infancy, the program hoped to provide 600 kids with gently used backpacks and a few supplies. Today, the program is hoping to give out more than 20,000 brand new backpacks full of brand new supplies that are catered to the kind of student receiving them.

The program really began to take off after Weinstein met her neighbor, former Trading Spaces host Paige Davis, who started using her personal fame to promote the program.

"A big part of Operation Backpack is we want these kids going to school and feeling just like the other kids at school, and in this instance it's necessary," Davis, who is now the spokesperson for Operation Backpack, told A Plus. "The most productive way to end the cycle of poverty is through education, so we outfit these children with what they need to succeed for the task at school but also to feel comfortable and accepted by their peers."

Photo courtesy of Volunteers of America, Greater New York

Operation Backpack is a community-driven program that's meant to help increase the chances of in-shelter children succeeding in school. For parents who live in shelters, supplying their kids with food is challenging enough. Getting them a bookbag and the necessary supplies — which can easily run over $100 total for a high school student — can be a nearly impossible task.

"Operation Backpack is very successful insomuch as it succeeds, somehow, some way, usually by the herculean efforts of Rachel and her staff," Davis said. 

Last year, with more than 19,000 supplied backpacks, they covered almost every child living in a homeless or domestic violence shelter in all of New York City that didn't have the means to get a backpack. 

But they still need help for their 2016 drive. You can donate money or a backpack here

Weinstein says the system is nearly down to a science. Partnering with the Department of Homeless Services and Department of Education, Operation Backpack reaches out to all the shelters and finds out information about the children in them throughout New York. They know how many children they have, what grade they're going into and their gender. Using that information, Operation Backpack gets student-specific supplies and backpacks to the children living in shelters.

Photo courtesy of Volunteers of America, Greater New York
Photo courtesy of Volunteers of America, Greater New York

One of Davis' favorite stories about the program took place when they were trying to promote contributions from a few companies. While hosting a breakfast kickoff party of sorts, telling a group of companies and their employees about the program and similar community services, an intern from JP Morgan stood up and said she had actually received a backpack from the program when she was in high school.

Davis remembers the girl telling her that the backpack made her realize someone believed in her, and even though she was always good in school, getting the supplies made her want to try harder and be better. She achieved honor roll, went to college and ended up landing the internship with JP Morgan. 

"That's just one girl who I happened to come across but I know that it is indicative of what all of these kids go through," Davis said. "It lets them know that they are important and it tells them your education is important, too."

Fortunately, breakfast kickoffs are working. Brands like Harper Collins, FedEx, HSBC, Colgate, Duane Reade and Deloitte have helped raise funds, donate backpacks, ship supplies and buy supplies. 

One of Weinstein's greatest joys in the program is seeing kids come in from the shelters and choose their backpacks. For kids who are so used to getting hand-me-downs, getting something new is an incredibly exciting experience, so much so that they leave new supplies wrapped up so the students can have the experience of unwrapping something new. 

"We all understand and remember what it feels like going to your first day of school; the excitement, fear anxiety and opportunity," Davis said. "The children who are in homeless shelters because of the financial strain their parents are under can miss out on all the good things that come with the first day of school."

But we can help change that. Want to contribute? Check out the Operation Backpack website here. The 2016 drive runs until August 5th. Outside of New York City, participating areas include Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Greater New York, Missouri, Alabama, Georgia, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, the Bay Area, Reno, Colorado, Kentucky, Oregon and Texas.