Project Backpack zips up for the start of a new school year

Helpline House Project Backpack coordinator Penny Paulsen will be hosting the annual backpack stuffing day next week. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Helpline House Project Backpack coordinator Penny Paulsen will be hosting the annual backpack stuffing day next week.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

t Helpline House will distribute school supplies next week.

When you’re deciding between paying for groceries and getting your child a new backpack, what’s going to win out?

“It’s a struggle,” said Helpline House Executive Director Joanne Tews. “You have to make some choices. That can certainly add stress to an already stressful life.”

Each August, Helpline House’s Project Backpack supply drive slips in to help eliminate the need for that choice.

The program’s underlying tenet is that providing students with the back-to-school essentials they need – and that many take for granted – can level the playing field and help give every kid a strong start to the school year.

Tews said that Helpline House, which offers a variety of social services, has seen an increase in overall usage this past year.

The cost of staples like milk, bread, eggs and meat has increased, and Tews also makes a direct correlation between rising fuel costs – both gasoline and heating oil – and an uptake in the number of people using the food bank.

The fact that June was chilly hasn’t helped; people haven’t seen the typical level of relief in their summer fuel bills, and paying to heat the house in June means a family’s July heating bill is that much higher.

Meanwhile, the cost of school supplies has risen, too. Helpline House estimates that this year the tally for basic first-grade supplies is $45. By the time kids reach fifth grade, the cost tops $100, with the amount increasing per grade until it reaches $200-$300 by senior year.

Project Backpack serves anywhere from 140-160 families per year. Typically, the number of new families signing up for Project Backpack increases 10 percent each year. This year, Tews said, there’s been a 25 to 30 percent increase in new sign-ups.

Once again, she says, it comes down to choices:

“Trying to put all the basic elements of living together, and finding you don’t have enough at the end of the week, much less at the end of the month.”

Project Backpack has existed in one form or another since before 1999, when Tews joined Helpline House. Early on, supplies were distributed in zip-lock bags; since her arrival, the project has evolved to its current form, which also includes a back-to-school clothing program sponsored by Windermere Real Estate.

From a donation standpoint, the program parallels the food bank, which accepts donations of either cash or supplies. For Project Backpack, people can purchase and donate supplies directly, make a cash donation to enable Helpline House to purchase supplies, or donate gift cards for area retailers.

This year, Helpline House has added a new component to its back-to-school program offerings, which is to provide application assistance for the Bainbridge Island School District’s reduced school lunch program.

The idea is to encourage participation from families who might not otherwise apply for school lunch assistance, either because the paperwork is daunting or because they’re not comfortable requesting the help.

So Helpline House volunteers will offer guidance with the forms, and even deliver them into the proper hands at the school district.

In Tews’ estimation, one of the most powerful things about Project Backpack and its related efforts is that it’s not just practical, but meaningful. The effort is intended to bolster positive emotions around the first day of school; year to year, she says, program participants are “overwhelmingly touched” by other community members’ generosity. And it works both ways, she believes, as those in a position to give gain tangible satisfaction that mirrors their own back-to-school excitement, both past and present.

“I believe that they want to help other families have that same positive experience – that good send-off to a really fun adventure at school,” she said.

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