Backpacks Take Front & Center
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Backpacks Take Front & Center

Annual Boston community service event benefits students throughout the region

Meet Jada. She's twelve years old, and she lives in the Boston inner-city neighborhood of Dorchester. Every day, she wakes up at 5:00 a.m. to catch a 6:00 a.m. bus to the affluent suburb of Marblehead. Jada is a student in the Metco program, a voluntary Massachusetts program in which low-income students commute to schools in other towns in order to expand their educational opportunities, increase diversity, and reduce racial isolation.

It takes courage for Jada and hundreds of other Metco students to leave their comfort zone every morning in pursuit of a better education. And it can't be easy not to be able to afford many of the material things her wealthier classmates take for granted.

At the start of every school year, Grand Circle associates Kathy and John Wilder think about the challenges Jada and others like her face at this normally exciting time of year. While some classmates are comparing brightly colored notebooks and pencils, others feel a sense of embarrassment or inadequacy. "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," explains Kathy.

To help bridge this gap between those who have and those who have not, Kathy and John host a community service event that has become an annual favorite at Grand Circle: a back-to-school backpack and supply drive. The couple first hosted the event under the banner of their own charitable organization, Community of Friends, which they founded together in 2003. Knowing that many of her Grand Circle colleagues share her passion for community service, Kathy decided to introduce the event to Grand Circle in 2006.

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."

This year's backpack drive benefited two organizations: Metco and KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Academy in Lynn, Massachusetts. Volunteers were given their choice of three age groups: grades 4-6 (10-12 year olds), grades 7-8 (13-14 year olds), and high school (15-19 years old). Associates were also given the option of making a financial donation, complementing the backpacks with extra supplies, and helping to move backpacks from their storage area to the loading dock at Grand Circle headquarters in Boston.

The drive was a tremendous success. From 40 backpacks during its first year as a Grand Circle event, the program has skyrocketed. This year, 154 students from Boston and Lynn went to school with backpacks filled with brand-new school supplies and "other fun goodies," according to John. "It has really caught on," says Kathy. "People love it."

In all, the backpacks and their contents represented a total donation of $7,500 by generous Grand Circle associates. "I love the backpack drive because, not only does it provide these children with the necessary, educational tools, but it also boosts their self-esteem during an important and transitional time of the year," says John. "Thank you to everyone who helped these students at the Metco program and KIPP Academy!"

Featured in our September/October 2012 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.