Owls Head resident Stephanie Williams spearheads a grassroots ‘Backpacks For Kids’ project just in time for school

‘It feels good just to be able to put a smile on a little kid’s face.’

The community pitches in to donate more than 274 backpacks filled with school supplies
Mon, 08/25/2014 - 2:30am

OWLS HEAD—A year ago, Stephanie Williams, a personal trainer from Owls Head, had a random conversation with some of her students in an exercise class about how much fun it was to buy school supplies in anticipation of going back to school and how as adults, we don’t get to do that anymore.

“Out of that initial conversation, we thought that we could all collaborate and put together a couple of backpacks with school supplies and drop them off at the local school,” she said. “We thought we’d have just a few, but we ended up with 10 full backpacks. Word got around really quickly, and 10 backpacks turned into 110 backpacks. As the news spread, local businesses and media helped spread the word. And everybody wanted to help.”

That grassroots community effort has mushroomed into a movement that Williams is calling Backpacks For Kids, a local, fundraiser to supply kids with new backpacks stuffed with school supplies for the new school year. Last year, Williams donated the backpacks to RSU #13 comprising of Rockland, Thomaston St. George, Owls Head and Cushing. This year, that effort has spread out to more local school districts, including donations from Camden-Rockport. To date, more than 274 full backpacks have been donated with around 10 local businesses contributing.

“More are coming in as we speak with extra school supplies and I think we’ll be adding a third school district,” she said.

According to a 2011 Maine Kids Count Report, nearly 20% of children in Knox County are living in poverty and 45 percent are on the school lunch subsidy. “In doing this, I’d learned that more than 40% of children in our local area don’t really know where their next meal is coming from,” said Williams. So, if we can take a little bit of stress off these families by supplying a backpack with school supplies, it is worth it.”

“It feels good just to be able to put a smile on a little kid’s face,” said Williams. “I get a lot of feedback from teachers and ed techs who work with the kids. They also appreciate the help because they’re spending a lot of money out of their own pockets to supply the kids with the necessary tools.”

Out of last year’s effort, she said, a teacher told her the story about a little girl the teacher worked with who owned a ratty, old backpack that her mom bought her at GoodWill. She loved the backpack, though because her mom had given it to her. When the backpacks were distributed last year, the teacher made sure this little girl got a new backpack.

“She said the smile on this kid’s face was incredible. And for about a week, this little girl ran up to her, grabbed her, and gave her a hug, thanking her again for the backpack. This is such a small story, it’s such a simple thing, but if this is going to impact these kids on their first day of school and have a little bit of higher self-esteem, then it is all worth it.”

Still, the effort has grown to a point where it might be more than Williams can handle on her own. “I wasn’t even sure if I was going to do it this year, but everyone in my community said, ‘You’ve got to!’,” said Williams, who works on average of 40 weeks. She said that she started taking donations in July and now, more than half of her garage is filled with items. “The last few months I’ve been coming home from work and go in my garage for a few hours, trying to organize everything to stay on top of it. I reached out to some friends and they’ve been over to help me. I’m seriously considering putting together a ‘Backpacks for Kids’ committee for next year.

Williams said the feedback she’s gotten from her friends and community has been inspirational as well.

“To buy a new backpack and supplies is around $40 and for some people, that doesn’t put them out, feel good about doing it. This year has proven that.”

The backpacks will be distributed next week. The deadline for donations is now over, but if someone wants to contact Williams about the committee, she can be reached at stephhillerpt4@hotmail.com

Kay Stephens can be reached at news@penbaypilot.com