My friend, Maria, is a social worker for an elementary school in a distressed neighborhood outside of Atlanta. At the end of this last school year, a third grade girl was brought to her office after having a melt down. The girl had always been a good student and never had any behavioral problems. The teacher’s aide escorting her in said that the young girl had been found crying in the bathroom clutching her backpack.
That backpack was still held tightly in front of her as the girl held back tears. My friend sat the little girl down and asked her what was wrong. After a few questions and assurances that she wasn’t in trouble, the girl said she had fallen and the backpack had ripped at the seams. Maria, knowing the girl was usually even-tempered, asked the girl why the backpack meant so much to her. That sweet child revealed that her family was living in a hotel, sometimes their van, and her parents wouldn’t be able to get her a new one. In that moment, Maria was filled with a deep grief as she understood that the girl’s backpack was one of the few things that was truly hers.
We know that there are thousands of children like that little girl here in Orlando. Not having the basic tools to participate fully in classes from day one is a hardship that can warp the normal excitement for the start of a new school year into full blown anxiety.
Lingering on Maria’s story, I thought about the special relationship that children have with their backpacks. All of us who went to school remember owning one and all the ways that we would make it ours. From selecting a cool pattern (when I was in middle school, the blue, green or black Jansport) to patches and other decoration, we could always identify ours at a glance. A backpack is a practical tool of the trade for being a student and is one of the few things that will stay constant as so much else might change in a year.
This small but powerful truth is part of why I’m so grateful that we do our Backpack Drive and that we are extending our reach to children of resettled refugee families locally.
Over the last few years I’ve watched so much coverage on the refugee crisis happening and one thing has struck me in the waves of people fleeing toward safety: the further away from what used to be home, the more likely a family has stripped down to what each person can carry. There are so many battered backpacks, holding what matters most. Sometimes the bag is the only personal possession left and it carries only necessities for survival. Much like the torn bag clutched by a little girl crying in my friend’s office, those sturdy canvas vessels are extremely precious to those who carry them and have lost so much.
As adults, we sometimes forget how it may feel to be as vulnerable as a child. If we’re lucky, our parents had jobs that were secure and we grew up far from poverty, violence, and war. The reality, though, is that when poverty, violence, or war visit a community, children take the brunt of the consequences and have so little power to change their situation. To us, a backpack is a practical gift, but to a child who often carries such huge burdens, a backpack can be precious.
Our Backpack Drive is wrapping up this weekend and we need your help to reach our goal of 500! If you haven't had a chance to yet, check out the shopping list, head to Target (it's OK, we're giving you permission to go to Target), and give a child in our community the opportunity to have something that is truly theirs this school year.
Liz Cronlund is the Community Development Coordinator for Summit Church. If you would like more information about ways you can be a part of serving our city, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.