Starting the year off right can be as simple as having a pair of confidence-boosting sneakers or a backpack full of brand-new pencils, pens, and paper.
But for families struggling to pay for housing and food, school supplies can be an unaffordable necessity.
On August 10, Cradles to Crayons hosted its 10th annual Backpack-A-Thon at Lincoln Financial Field, in partnership with the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. Over the course of just two hours, 600 volunteers filled 30,000 backpacks, assembly-line style, with new school supplies.
The annual effort is a sight to see, says Suzanne Allen-Weise, manager of Family Philanthropy at Cradles to Crayons. First, thousands of colorful backpacks arrive on pallets. Volunteers zip and unzip each backpack to test for defects. Then, at the rate of nearly three backpacks per minute, teams work together to stuff them with the basics like pens, markers, and notebooks. They also put together KidPacks containing clothes and shoes. Corporate supporters sponsor the initiative, volunteers make it happen, and social services partners distribute the backpacks and KidPacks to kids in need.
And there are plenty of those. Allen-Weise says people often learn about Backpack-A-Thon from the news and show up to request backpacks. Unfortunately, the backpacks filled during the event are already spoken for by local social services partners, which keep lists of kids in need. However, Cradles to Crayons does its best to connect these drop-ins with organizations that can help.
Founder Lynn Margherio envisioned Cradles to Crayons when she noticed that her niece had many outgrown and unworn outfits in her dresser drawers. Margherio wondered if these unwanted items could help less fortunate kids. She started Cradles to Crayons in 2002, focusing on the Boston area. The organization has since spread to Philadelphia and Chicago.
Cradles to Crayons focuses on children from birth through age 12, providing the essentials kids need to be kids. In addition to running annual initiatives like the Backpack-a-Thon, the staff collect everything from baby supplies to warm winter gear for children who’d otherwise go without. Donated items are inspected according to strict quality standards. “We make sure we’d put them on our own kids,” said Allen-Weise. “We want [recipients] to go to school feeling like every other kid. They should not have to focus on their clothes being torn, dirty, out of style, or the same thing they wore yesterday.”
Research shows that success in school is linked to the financial well-being of a child’s family. In 2015, 76 percent of low-income Pennsylvania fourth-graders scored below “proficient” on reading tests, compared with 45 percent of those who were not low income. Living in poverty poses a threat to children’s cognitive development and could potentially cause behavioral, emotional, and social problems in the classroom and beyond. According to Cradles to Crayons, 40 percent of children in the Greater Philadelphia Area live in poverty or in a low-income home.
Receiving new school supplies and clothes takes the pressure off low-income families and helps kids feel a sense of pride and anticipation that may help them perform better in class. They may even be more likely to attend school in the first place. Allen-Weise recalled a case where two sisters had inconsistent attendance; if one sister came to school, the other stayed home. Eventually, it was discovered that the girls were sharing the only winter coat. Once Cradles to Crayons provided each child with a coat of her own, both sisters could attend school together.
Tara Willis, a domestic abuse response team advocate for Laurel House, counts on Cradles to Crayon to provide seasonal clothing and other items she can distribute to her clients. “We feel good knowing we can take care of their small needs, like winter gear,” she said. “For our clients, sometimes it’s the little things that count.”
Once, Willis requested assistance from Cradles to Crayons on behalf of a five-year-old client, whose mother had taken steps to escape an abusive situation. The child was shy, quiet, and self-conscious about needing new shoes, which his mother could not afford. When a pair of sneakers arrived from Cradles to Crayons, the social worker reported seeing the child laugh and smile for the first time. He asked to put on his new shoes immediately, delighted that his peers at school would no longer make fun of him.
Helping a child overcome the effects of poverty is daunting, but difference -makers take it one backpack at a time. Each Backpack-A-Thon pack is topped off with a handmade card encouraging its recipient to have a great school year. As Allen-Weise put it, “The point is to say, ‘Somebody is rooting for you!’” As soon as Backpack-a-Thon 2017 came to an end, volunteers began work on next year’s cards.
Shannon Fandler is a Philadelphia-based writer with a background in marketing, technology, and education. She is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Rutgers University – Camden, where she teaches writing classes. She is also a copy editor at Hippocampus magazine.