Operation Backpack’s back-to-school backpack drive underway

More than 18,000 school-age children live in New York City’s homeless and domestic violence shelters. In most cases, their families do not have the resources to buy back-to-school supplies.

One local nonprofit is making sure that come September, every child living in a New York City homeless or domestic violence shelter who needs one, gets a new, top-quality backpack filled with every imaginable supply — all in time for the first day of school.

Operation Backpack, the community service initiative of Volunteers of America-Greater New York, now in its 15th year, has outfitted more than 160,000 homeless students in New York City, grades pre-K to 12, with fully stocked backpacks. Last year alone, the initiative fulfilled every request it received from a shelter: 18,000 backpacks in total.

Operation Backpack is 100 percent dependent on support from the community, and there are several ways that the public can help. A cash donation allows Volunteers of America-Greater New York to purchase, at highly discounted prices, the critically needed, grade-specific supplies required to fill 12,500 empty backpacks that have been donated. The average cost to fill a backpack is $87 — an expense very few families that are homeless can afford. The younger the child, the less expensive the backpack; the older the student, the higher the cost, as their backpacks include a USB flash drive, geometry set, scientific calculator, and assignment or weekly planner along with all the usual supplies.

This year, Volunteers of America-Greater New York is expanding its campaign to include shelters for runaway and homeless youth. Forty percent of these youth are lesbian, gay, transgender, and queer.

New Yorkers can also participate by purchasing, filling, and donating brand-new, top-quality backpacks and bringing them to official drop locations across the City no later than Friday, Aug. 3.

Here’s a sample of the many items that fill the backpacks: calculator, geometry set, spiral notebooks, composition notebooks, washable markers, index cards, three-ring binders, subject dividers, graph paper, dictionary, glue sticks, white glue, watercolors, and USB flash drives, in addition to other essential school supplies.

“School can be hard enough for kids. Now imagine a homeless child entering the classroom without as much as a pencil in his or her hand. Not only does that put that child at a serious disadvantage, but it draws attention to the fact that they are homeless and in need,” said Rachel Weinstein, Volunteers of America-Greater New York’s Vice President of Communications and External Relations, and the founder of Operation Backpack. “Thanks to Operation Backpack, these kids get a better chance to succeed in school. With help from everyday New Yorkers, they will walk into the classroom with the school supplies necessary to do their work, looking and feeling more like their classmates and less like a child in need.”

It is anticipated that more than 300 companies and community groups will participate in this year’s campaign, with many new partners already signed on. Official sponsors this year include Walgreens and Duane Reade, RXR Realty, PITCH, New York City Department of Education, PromaxBDA, HarperCollins Publishers, Weeks Lerman, and FedEx.

Here’s how the community can help:

• Purchase and fill new backpacks and bring them to official drop locations until Aug. 3. Official drop-off locations can be found here: https://www.voa-gny.org/drop-off-locations.

• For a list of the grade-specific items that go into the backpacks, click here: https://www.voa-gny.org/what-goes-in-a-backpack.

• The public can build fundraising teams on Volunteers of America-Greater New York’s behalf by going to DonateOperationBackpackNYC.org and asking family and friends to donate.

• Volunteers of America-Greater New York is seeking additional financial sponsors and major in-kind donors. To learn more, please contact Rachel Weinstein at rweinstein@voa-gny.org or (212) 496–4305.

Volunteers of America-Greater New York’s back-to-school campaign began in New York City in 2002 as a small effort to collect school supplies for vulnerable children in homeless shelters operated by the organization. After growing exponentially — the result of public support — the program was re-branded as Operation Backpack in 2004. It has become a national model and has been replicated by several VOA affiliates around the country.