Next Doors: Packing for the Future

Backpack Buddies project provides critical items for students in need

It’s a school year like no other. Believe me, I know, as a parent of a freshman and a fourth-grader. But we don’t need to go into all that.

There are some things that never change, and the need for students to be properly equipped for school is one of them. It goes beyond just books and school supplies. To succeed, students need to feel good about themselves. They need to be properly dressed and have all the tools they need to learn.

For lower-income families simply making ends meet, putting food on the table can be a struggle, much less ensuring that children have all their clothing and supplies. Fortunately, a program offered here in the Valley and in the Tri-State area of Arizona, Nevada and California is helping meet this critical and often underappreciated need.

Legacy Backpack Buddies is a project produced by Legacy Connection, which is an affiliate of BHHS Legacy Foundation. It’s put on here in the Valley in collaboration with Back to School Clothing Drive Association, Assistance League of Phoenix and Assistance League of East Valley Operation School Bell programs, local Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs, and corporate partners and community sponsors.

Together, the program distributes more than 20,000 backpacks annually to elementary schoolchildren from low-income families in the two markets. Children are provided with shoes, clothing, back-to-school supplies, health and hygiene staples, and books.

“All the children get two outfits, tennis shoes, belt, socks, underwear, a backpack full of hygiene items and school supplies and books that are age-specific,” said BHHS Legacy Foundation CEO Jerry Wissink. “Through Back to School Clothing Drive, the children also are able to select a handmade shirt, dress or accessory made by a group of volunteers at Stitches of Love.”

The Assistance League of the East Valley does theirs in a bit different way. “They do shopping trips to various department stores and bag and deliver to schools. And we started annually doing Luke Air Force Base a couple of years ago, about 800 kids there,” Wissink said.

BHHS Legacy Foundation and Legacy Connection are focused on improving the health and quality of life for the two markets they serve, and Legacy Backpack Buddies is a significant part of the organizations’ missions.

The program takes on several different iterations depending on where the students are. As mentioned, some of the partners go about their work in different ways. There’s even an online shopping component available to some of the students.

In the Tri-State area, the program is slightly different. Because of the smaller population base, there are fewer partnerships involved, so the focus is more on direct donations.

“This year, we did seven drive-thrus all over the Tri-State area,” said Nancy Mongeau, vice-president of program development in the Tri-State region for BHHS Legacy Foundation. “We service about 2,500 to 3,000 kids annually out of our hub. We have to deal with three states and different rules.”

But the overall idea is the same — to give kids the tools they need to succeed. And the formula makes all the sense in the world. They’re simply buying in bulk, and by doing so and by working with partners, costs for each pack are dramatically reduced. Wissink said that each child gets a package that costs Legacy Backpack Buddies $100, but if you went to a store to buy the same items, it might cost $350.

The program even cut a cost-effective deal with a shoe company to buy quality rubber-bottomed sneakers in bulk, in various colors and sizes, one of the most popular aspects of the effort.

“I tell people all the time that every kid deserves to go to school on their first day ready to learn,” Mongeau said. “And if they’re worried that they’re the only ones who don’t have a new uniform shirt, or they’re the only ones that don’t have all the supplies the teacher wants them to — it just makes them start behind the eight ball. I think every kid deserves the right to get to that first day of school and feel good about learning.”

The program is funded by BHHS Legacy Foundation, which matches contributions raised through Arizona Charitable Tax Credit contributions that are donated to Legacy Connection. And there’s much more that can be done. Several thousand students are on a waiting list, and the program team is always looking for ways to expand and enhance its impact to serve more children in Title I schools.

“The 20,000 children served a year basically touches the tip of the iceberg of the need out there,” Wissink said. “That’s why we try and partner with other groups to expand it and grow it each year.”

Wissink said the need is profound for a program such as this and relayed stories of children who show up for school with missing soles on their shoes, or wearing a parent’s hand-me-downs that don’t fit right.

“The schools help us pick the neediest of all the Title I kids,” he said. “There’s a huge need out there for this program.”

However, Wissink and Mongeau said that it’s not just about the school year — it’s about positioning a child in a better place for future success.

“In the beginning, if they start out right, a lot of times they end up right,” Mongeau said. “We have to help them.”

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About Tom Evans

Tom Evans is Contributing Editor of Frontdoors Media and a partner at ON Advertising in Phoenix.
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