Backpack Project gives Hephzibah kids a fresh start

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Sharpened pencils. Crisp sheets of paper. Brand-new folders and notebooks not yet worn around the edges. Shiny new backpacks. "It's just cool for a kid to get new stuff," says Terri McConville, an Oak Park resident and chair of the Backpack Project.

The Oak Park Women's Guild, a community service and social group, is making sure the kids from Hephzibah Children's Association will also get brand-new supplies when they start school next fall. Every year, the Backpack Project gives the Hephzibah children 60 backpacks filled with new school supplies, school outfits, gift certificates and sometimes an extra touchâ€"perhaps a Beanie Baby, jewelry or trinkets.

The kids truly appreciate it, says Maureen McGoorty, who has worked as the Hephzibah liaison to the Oak Park Women's Guild for the last few years and is the director of volunteer services at Hephzibah, a child welfare and daycare agency in Oak Park.

"It is so incredibly moving, their reaction," McGoorty says. "These are kids who have gotten nothing but used and hand-me-down [supplies]. By doing this you show these children that you value their education." These kids are used to borrowing, she adds, and it's important to give them something new that they can call their own.

New backpacks will be given to the 27 children currently living at Hephzibah. Since the agency has a high turnover rate as kids are placed in foster care, the remaining backpacks will go to kids who come in throughout the year, or to kids in the daycare program who don't have school supplies, McGoorty says.

The project organizers, Terri McConville and Pam Dombrowski, are already hunting down school supply lists from school districts and drumming up sponsorship and fundraising support.

Since the women have started including new school outfits and $50 gift certificates to Target or Sears along with the school supplies, McGoorty estimates each backpack is worth $125 to $150. Multiply that by 60 backpacks and "you can do the mathâ€"it's fabulous, it's huge," McGoorty says.

Raising thousands of dollars is a Herculean undertaking. Although the Women's Guild has money budgeted for the project, more than half of the seed money is donated by sponsors, says McConville. This year the women also are hoping to garner sponsorship from local Realtors.

Community banks have been consistent supporters, Dombrowski says. The Community Bank of Oak Park, First Bank of Oak Park and Forest Park National Bank usually give monetary donations of $500. Other local businesses contribute money or supplies.

Members of the Guild divvy up the shopping list and some even make their own donations to the cause by refusing reimbursement, says McConville.

"I think this is a great project," says Dombrowski, a River Forest resident. "It's in our community, the kids are from our community. They've had a tough break."

Dombrowski brought her own children, 6-year-old Jillian, 5-year-old Robert and 2-year-old Neil, to deliver the backpacks last year, hoping they would get some exposure to children who were less fortunate. "The kids talked about it for a long time," she remembers. "They had an understanding that there are kids with no parents."

As a mom, McConville thinks spending the time and money is worth it. "I think as you become a mother you definitely feel more understanding about what it is to give your kids something and not to give your kids something," she says. "As a mom it pulls your heartstrings a little more."

The Women's Guild will assemble the backpacks on Aug. 11 and deliver them to the children at Hephzibah on Aug. 18. Monetary donations or donations of school supplies such as binders, notebooks, glue, calculators, rulers or backpacks are accepted until Aug. 10. For more information about the Backpack Project or the Women's Guild, contact Terri McConville at 524-1516.

â€"Diana Oleszczuk

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