Operation Backpack outfits kids with supplies and confidence

Ready … or not?

The start of a new school year is quickly approaching, and hundreds of thousands of New York City schoolkids will soon shop for a new backpack — and the pencils, pens, notebooks, binders, and other must-have supplies that go in it.

But thousands of others won’t.

More than 22,000 children — most of them school age — live in homeless and domestic violence shelters across the city, and right now, they don’t know if they will be ready with a new backpack and other academic necessities on the first day of school. That’s where Operation Backpack comes in.

Now in its 14th year, the community service initiative of Volunteers of America–Greater New York aims to outfit every child living in a city shelter with a new, high-quality, school-supply-filled backpack in time for the start of the school year. The organization’s immediate goal: to collect 20,000 donated backpacks at 15 drop-off sites around the city — and another four in New Jersey — by Aug. 4.

“The sad fact is that more than 20,000 homeless children, right here in New York City, cannot afford even the most basic school supplies. This puts them at a devastating disadvantage,” says Volunteers of America–Greater New York vice president Rachel Weinstein, the founder of Operation Backpack. “This campaign is helping prepare these deserving kids for success in school. With help from everyday New Yorkers, they will walk into the classroom with a fully stocked backpack, just like their classmates, ready to face the school year with hope and dignity and without the stigma that comes with being a child in need.”

Weinstein said that through donations from individuals, corporations, schools, and houses of worship, Operation Backpack has given backpacks to more than 140,000 students in pre-K through 12th grade living in shelters across the city — including 19,000 last year alone.

“The average cost to fill a backpack is $87, an expense very few families in shelters can afford,” she said. “The younger the child, the less expensive the backpack; the older the student, the higher the cost, as their backpacks include a USB drive, geometry kit, scientific calculator, full-size dictionary and thesaurus, and student planner along with all of the usual supplies.”

Corporate donors such as HSBC, Walgreens–Duane Reade, and JPMorgan Chase have signed on to contribute to this year’s Operation Backpack effort, but Weinstein encouraged private individuals and families to participate by going online to www.OperationBackpackNYC.org to find lists of drop-off sites and grade-specific items to put inside donated backpacks. Financial donations can be made at www.crowdrise.com/OperationBackpackNYC.

“A new backpack and school supplies can make the difference between a child being excited to go to school and not wanting to go at all,” Weinstein said. “It can help restore normalcy to their otherwise chaotic lives, make them look and feel more like their classmates, and help them start the school year prepared and confident in the knowledge that their education is important and that someone believes in them.”

Reach James Harney at (718) 260-2529 or e-mail him at jharney@cnglocal.com.