NEW YORK - A handful of volunteers at a Chelsea office building work to sort backpacks destined for children in city shelters along with school supplies. Typically dozens would be there for corporate team building events, but this is the time of coronavirus. It has changed the way the 17-year-old Volunteers of America Greater New York initiative "Operation Backpack" does business. The effort has been a successful one over the years.
"I'd say that we have given about 220,000 children backpacks," said Rachel Weinstein, VP of Communication and External Relations at Volunteers of America Greater New York. She is the founder of the initiative.
Weinstein says the coronavirus has changed everything this year. Corporate collection drives at offices didn’t happen, because many people are still working from their homes.
"Last year 340 companies held drives and it resulted in over 9,000 backpacks," said Weinstein, who added that this year coronavirus has completely upended everything.
Another blow came in the form of an anonymous donor, who typically gives the effort 10,000 backpacks, not being able to because of distribution chain issues. Weinstein says they are around $250,000 short right now, so cash donations are key in getting new backpacks with school supplies to 18,000 kids in shelters. The organization, which runs 80 human services programs, decided Operation Backpack had to continue.
"We felt like it was more important than ever for us to rise to the occasion and do it," said Weinstein.
The organization received support from partners like Duane Reade and Walgreen’s, who held a two week fundraising campaign in their stores earlier this summer and raised $112,000 from customer donations at checkout.
As far as logistics, instead of volunteers filling brand new backpacks with age-appropriate supplies, Volunteers of America purchased individual pre-packaged boxes of supplies, which will be delivered to the shelters alongside the backpacks. The mission is to get them to the kids before school begins, in whatever form it will with donations to make sure every child in city shelters gets a backpack and school supplies they need.
"Whether they walk in or they are sitting at home, whatever it is, we just want them to prepared, excited, hopeful," said Weinstein, who stressed her belief that education is key to breaking the cycle of homelessness and inter-generational poverty.
Paige Davis of Television's Trading Spaces and the theater world has been a supporter for years, and is proud Volunteers of America was able to keep this going. Davis is also a a member of the board for the organization.
"I'm so thrilled that we are able to supply these kids with their school supplies again this year," said Davis, who appealed to New Yorkers to help out with donations to make sure every child in city shelters gets a backpack and school supplies they need.
To help out, head to donateoperationbackpacknyc.org.