September 3, 2012

Cornell Employees Collect, Donate Backpacks to Students in Need

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One backpack, a few pencils and crayons, two notebooks and some construction paper. That may not sound like much, but it’s all it takes to make many children happy on their first day of school, according to several University employees who volunteer through the Backpack Program.

The Backpack Program, a non-profit run and staffed by Cornell employees, collects backpacks and school supplies to give to local school children, from kindergarten to sixth grade, whose families cannot afford to buy those items on their own.

The program finished collecting this year’s supplies last week, totalling at least 646 backpacks — compared to last year’s count of 539 — according to Maureen Brull, senior consultant of education and voluntary plans in Cornell’s Deptartment of Benefit Services.

Since its founding in 2007, the program has collected more than 1,800 backpacks, which volunteers fill with school supplies.

The idea for the initiative came to Brull after her granddaughter met a girl without a backpack during her first day of kindergarten.

“She came home to tell me that there was a child in school who had no backpack and was bringing everything in a plastic bag from a grocery store,” Brull said. “I waited for a few days as [her parents] might not have had time to shop for school. [It] turned out that it was a different plastic bag every day.”

Brull approached William Alberta M.S. ’77, who organizes the Cornell Elves Program, with ideas to start a charity to address the problem. The Elves Program, established in 1989, is a Cornell charity that collects school supplies, clothes and toys to give to impoverished children throughout Tompkins County.

“We worked on the idea in 2006 and started with the [Backpack] Program in 2007,” Brull said. “We just sat down and discussed … you would need if you are in kindergarten to sixth grade.”

Brull said staff and faculty members involved with the program prepare a contact list of coworkers, friends and neighbors to solicit for backpack donations. Then, once the backpacks and supplies have been collected, program leaders talk to local schools to see if they have students in need.

The program has a base of individuals who consistently donate backpacks and supplies. For instance, a group of employees in the College of Veterinary Medicine donates backpacks every year, according to Jennifer Mailey, director of admissions for the college.

The Backpack Program has seen a steady growth in annual donations since its creation, Brull said.

“You don’t even need to send a reminder. Some people are just very generous and send in the backpacks,” Brull said. “I came back from summer break and they told me … ‘You won’t be able to enter your office.’ There were backpacks lined all over.”

Still, she said the program is always looking for more donations to meet an always increasing need.

“I think for me the saddest thing is that you get a phone call from someone who has heard about the program to see if we could donate a backpack for their children,” Brull said.

Young students’ reactions to receiving backpacks through the program have been overwhelmingly positive, according to volunteers.

“On Tuesday, I had a third grader come to me because his used backpack was literally falling apart, and he asked if I could help him. I had one backpack left and you would have thought it was Christmas,” Mary Hicks, a nurse at Dryden Elementary School, wrote in a note posted on the Backpack Program’s website.

Brull also said that when backpacks are given out to children, the scene is comparable to the unwrapping of gifts on Christmas morning.

“Who could guess that a backpack could make someone’s day,” she said. “The next day I spoke to my granddaughter and she said, ‘Grandma! She has a backpack.’”

Original Author: Manu Rathore