Shauna Backus remembers the day she saw a child with a backpack she knew all too well. It was because she packed it with new school supplies just a few short weeks earlier.
Backus has been serving on the steering committee of Congregations for Kids — an all-volunteer group sponsored by the Eastside Interfaith Social Concerns Council — for the past five years. She and dozens of volunteers raise funds and collect donations to provide Bellevue School District students in need with new backpacks and school supplies each year.
CFK recently held its 23rd annual drive at Spiritridge Elementary School. Rows of long tables overflowing with piles of colorful notebooks and binders, boxes of fresh pencils, crayons and erasers, and stacks of new backpacks filled the gymnasium.
This year, there are almost 1,300 students who are in need of school supplies. Students who receive free or reduced lunches in the district are eligible to receive aid. The district provides CFK with the number of students who have requested help and includes their school, grade and gender.
“A lot of times you’ll see just drives for school supplies, but these are all for designated kids and these are all kids who have been requested by the district and so we know their gender, their grade, their school, and so that’s how we pack — everything is custom for those kids, elementary through high school,” Nancy Jacobs, the board chair of the steering committee, said.
Although Bellevue is considered to be a wealthy city, Jacobs said it doesn’t mean there aren’t some families who struggle. One of the biggest challenges, she said, is getting more people in the community to understand that there is need in Bellevue.
“This has been going on for 23 years and it started with 143 kids and now we’re up 1,300. Last year I think we had almost 1,700 kids. But it’s still just getting recognition that Bellevue has this need,” Jacobs said. “There is a wide range of need and all this is going to all but two schools this year. It may be only a couple kids, but it’s still nearly every single school in the district. That’s the most important thing that people should understand: There is need here.”
For BSD superintendent Ivan Duran, seeing the the drive for the first time was inspiring.
“I’m really impressed by the organization and the number of supplies that are here. It just really shows the power of the community to get people working together toward a common vision so it’s really great,” he said. “I think programs like this not only show that there is a need here but also we also have people who will fill the need.”
Volunteers organize, label and pack backpacks with everything teachers in the district require students to have. One of Backus’s roles is making the tags that identify which backpack needs what specific supplies.
“Every backpack has a specific tag as we fill every order,” she said.
Once the orders are completed, Jubilee REACH delivers the orders to every school that requested more than 35 backpacks. Orders with less than 35 require a school representative to personally pick up the backpacks.
It takes dozens of volunteers and hundreds of hours to organize this drive every year, but Backus said she’s always amazed by the large community support.
Susan Ryan, a former member of the steering committee, said it’s so great to see the volunteers come to help.
“It’s just great being here. We have retired teachers here and we’ve had high school kids and people’s grandchildren and it’s just exciting to see them get so enthused,” Ryan said.
The volunteers’ work doesn’t go unacknowledged. Volunteer Linda Detering said they receive wonderful thank-you cards from the students and families who receive aid. Last year, a local mother wrote to express her gratitude to the organization and its volunteers.
“There was a story in one of our thank you notes from a mom who had just moved to town with two young children and found out about this. Her kids didn’t even want to start school but she said the minute they got those backpacks, they wanted to go to school — they were excited and ready,” Detering said. “I think that makes a big difference for a kid to know that they got what everyone else has and they won’t be the only one without the things that they need.”
For the volunteers, Backus said she’s just glad to be a part in helping kids be ready for school and equipped to learn.
“Last year on the first day of school, I dropped off my son at his high school and I was headed to work and I saw an elementary kid on a corner with his mom and I recognized his backpack and I knew that it was one of ours and that was amazing,” she said. “It was like, ‘I did that, I helped do that, we made that happen.’”