All the Tools for Back-to-School
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All the Tools for Back-to-School

How one Grand Circle associate helps give underprivileged kids the supplies they need to succeed

"We are your neighbors, your friends and your co-workers. We believe that charity begins at the home and that we have an obligation to help those among us who—through circumstances beyond their control—find themselves in a difficult place." So reads the mission statement of Community of Friends, a volunteer-based charitable organization in Marblehead, Massachusetts, co-founded by Grand Circle associate Kathy Wilder and her husband, John. Together, the couple organizes events that motivate neighbors and families to give back to the place they call home.

"The principles of the charity are based on what I learned from Grand Circle Foundation," says Kathy, who has been with the company since 1999. "If you run events that are fun and easy, people will step up to help the community." One such event is Community of Friends' annual backpack and school supply drive, now in its fifth year. "For families who are struggling to put food on the table, back-to-school time—which should be an exciting time—is a stressful time," says Kathy. "They can't afford to equip their children with the proper school supplies. Starting the school year without the proper learning tools has a negative impact on a child's self-esteem and starts them off on the wrong foot at school."

When Kathy first partnered with Grand Circle on the backpack drive in 2006, associates filled and donated a total of 40 backpacks. Since then, the company has increased their efforts more than threefold, with associates exceeding the goal of 125 backpacks in 2010. "It has really caught on," says Kathy. "People love it."

Volunteers receive a school supply list, and purchase and fill a backpack with grade-appropriate materials, including pencils, notebooks, highlighters, three-ring binders, and scissors. Participants also receive the name, grade, gender, and favorite color of a specific student. "That's what people really love about it," says Kathy. "I think they feel connected to the child."

Many associates enjoy involving their families in the drive as well. "My daughter [Elizabeth], a third-grader, wanted to help out but didn't have any money, so I added $32.50 to her chore duty," says Kathleen Lambert, a 15-year Grand Circle associate whose own mother instilled in her the value of community service. When Kathleen showed Elizabeth the Community of Friends shopping list, her daughter was shocked to see that a toothbrush and toothpaste were on it. "That really struck a chord with her," says Kathleen. "She said, 'Oh my gosh. Somebody doesn't even have enough money to brush their teeth?'"

A parent of seven children—four of whom are still in school—Judy Swentik, with Grand Circle since 2005, also involved her family in the drive. "When my older children were young, I didn't have a lot of money, so we kind of scraped together to get what they need for school," says Judy. "Now that I'm in a different position and have young children that I can afford to get supplies for, I just want to return the favor—to pay it forward."

In addition to donating backpacks, Grand Circle associates volunteered their time, shopping for school supplies with colleagues' monetary donations, organizing materials and dividing them by grade, and serving as floor captains to help rally volunteers. Associates also donated pastries and other sweet treats for a bake sale at Grand Circle's Boston headquarters. To add to the fun, Kathy decided to give the sale a game-show twist: Each associate who bought a dessert got to play a question from, "Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?"

"Some people didn't want to not be smarter than a fifth-grader, so they would throw in another dollar and take another question," says Kathy. "It was super fun."

Making the annual backpack drive fun and easy to participate in is the key to its success. "This drive is a huge undertaking," says Kathy, "but the associates make it so easy for us!"

Grand Circle associates who donate to the backpack drive are helping children through METCO, Inc. and KIPP Academy Lynn in Lynn, Marblehead, Salem, Boston, and other North Shore communities in Massachusetts.