Rotary Club boosts Greenwich students with backpack drive

Above, seven-year-old Michelle Rodriguez picks out a backpack for her first day of third grade as Maria Christo shows off the selection she can choose from. All the backpacks were donated to Greenwich kids thanks to the efforts of the Greenwich Rotary Club, which purchased bags, as seen below, to be given to families with the aid of the town’s Department of Social Services. – Ken Borsuk

Above, seven-year-old Michelle Rodriguez picks out a backpack for her first day of third grade as Maria Christo shows off the selection she can choose from. All the backpacks were donated to Greenwich kids thanks to the efforts of the Greenwich Rotary Club, which purchased bags, as seen below, to be given to families with the aid of the town’s Department of Social Services. – Ken Borsuk

When Greenwich kids headed back to school this week, many received a helping hand from the Greenwich Rotary Club though its annual backpack drive.

The annual giveaway not only provided brand new backpacks to hundreds of students throughout the Greenwich Public Schools but also a full compliment of school supplies including pencils, notebooks, binders, loose leaf paper, higlighters and, for older grades, calculators. The Greenwich Rotary Club has been doing this for five years and the backpacks and supplies have been distributed by the town’s Department of Social Services.

John Jee, community projects chairman, for the club said that this efforts and others that the club are pushing forward all stem from its desire to promote literacy.

“Globally the Rotary’s mission was the eradication of polio and since then we’ve been working on other projects and our mission is to focus on literacy,” Mr. Jee said. “We’ve been focusing on community the past six years and we want the community to know that we’re here for them. They can count on us doing these things continually. We take the lead on projects and provide support where we can.”

The Rotary Club started the backpack effort in Greenwich years ago as the community was caught up in the recession caused by the 2008 economic crisis. Mr. Jee said he was taking his child to a birthday party where he ran into another parent and they began talking about how difficult it was to raise money to buy Crayola crayons for kids in town. That project was being done by the Greenwich Boy Scouts and it got Mr. Lee thinking about how the Rotary could help. When he heard how the demand for help from the Department of Social Services was growing he decided to push for the club to get involved.

“I thought it was important for us to make it clear to the community that this was going to be our thing,” Mr. Jee said. “We wanted to show what our organization could do with the money we raised. We’re able to use the apparatus set up. They’re very well organized here and it’s very gratifying to know that we’re able to directly help people with this.”

To make this work there was a lot of help from local merchants and Mr. Jee said L.L. Bean was also able to help with the backpacks. Because this is done every year, Mr. Jee said, it’s established in the community and people expect it.

There were requests for close to 300 backpacks this year and Alison Brush, community gifts coordinator for the Department of Social Services, told the Post that the demand for this help is growing. This year there had to be a waiting list for kids as people signed up after the deadline the department had set. In order to be eligible for the program, you had to be a current client of the department with an assigned case worker because that way it had already been confirmed that everyone met the economic requirements for participation.

“It’s very important that we can do this,” Ms. Brush said. “All kids should be able to go to school with new school supplies and a new backpack for the first day and for parents, especially ones with multiple children in the family, it can be very difficult for them to afford all this along with what they’re paying for back to school clothing and other items. It’s a tremendous help to parents getting the school year started.”

Ms. Brush said all the credit has to go to the Rotary Club for originating the program and pushing it year after year. There’s no expense to the town for this assistance as the club provided the backpacks and the supplies as well as volunteers to help the department hand them out. Several volunteers helped load up the backpacks with grade appropriate supplies and then separate them into piles so they could be easily handed out and then last Friday, when the backpacks were handed out, more volunteers, including Rotary Club member Ben Branyon, the school district’s managing director of operations were on hand to help.

“This is completely their initiative,” Ms. Brush said. “They sponsor this whole thing. They buy all the supplies. They buy all the backpacks. We just stuff them and hand them out. It’s completely their initiative. They approached us and we’re just happy to do it with them. We’re very lucky in Greenwich to have groups that are willing to come forward and do this kind of thing. We wouldn’t be able to provide the services to our clients that we do without help from the community.”

The department is receiving additional assistance from Vineyard Vines. The popular clothing store, owned and founded by Greenwich residents Ian and Shep Murray, is stepping up donating backpacks and supplies to help close to 20 more children, easing that waiting list. Ms. Brush said she is hopeful that every kid on the list will be able to receive help.

This is not the only thing the Greenwich Rotary Club does to help students. In October, with the help of the Board of Education, the club hands out a dictionary and thesaurus to every third grader in the public schools and holds an assembly in the elementary schools about why they’re important.

“People say ‘Oh kids just have iPads now,’ but, and I’m a parent, that’s the last thing you want them to have when they’re supposed to read a few chapters,” Mr. Jee said. “This works out great and it teaches kids about looking up words and learning more.”

The club will also continue to be the main financial support for Reading Champions, a partnership of the United Way’s Youth Services Council and the school district. As part of this program, trained volunteers visit schools to help tutor hundreds of students a year in literacy and building fluency skills.

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