On a rainy Tuesday morning in August, I witnessed a small miracle in the basement of the Church of the Resurrection in Rye. Two hundred and sixty volunteers aged six to 90 turned up to fill 2,030 backpacks so that kids in our community can return to school with all the right tools.
The bags included notebooks, pens, pencils, paper, folders, drawing paper and calculators. The room was filled with smiling faces and the well-oiled assembly line was in full operation when I arrived. In just under two hours, the task was complete.
Helping Hands for the Homeless & Hungry was responsible for the event and they’ve been doing it every year for the past 26 years. Each year, the number of bags filled grows, but the supply never meets the demand.
“This year, the request for backpacks from our member agencies was close to 2,700. Our backpacks are the only ones provided to these agencies. Yearly, we receive requests from other groups who would like to be included, so we are judicious in allocation,” Susan Conley Salice, co-president of Helping Hands, said.
The latest data from the Westchester County Department of Social Services shows a 24 percent increase in homelessness in the county in 2012. The number of people on food stamps in our community has jumped 65 percent since 2009. These numbers seem daunting, and yet people in our community are making a difference.
Helping Hands coordinates with 19 agencies and local churches in lower Westchester to provide children living in homeless shelters, or families identified as working poor, with a backpack. Funds are raised each June with an annual letter of appeal to local residents.
“We raise funds from members of our community, and then we are able to buy all the necessary supplies at a significant discount from a long-time partner. This year, we are excited to add scientific calculators to the bags for junior high and high school students. This is a critical upgrade as students need to be able to complete their homework and prepare for state exams,” said Brigitte Sarnoff, co-president of the organization.
Filling backpacks isn’t all this organization does. They host “Dinner @ Noon,” which was the first program started by the organization in 1987 and still continues today. Every Saturday from September to June, Helping Hands members serve a hot meal to their guests who include senior citizens, mothers and children, homeless and the working poor. They even provide a take-home bag for their guests. It’s truly a multi-cultural, interfaith undertaking as volunteers come from many of the area’s churches and synagogues.
Another much needed program that Helping Hands undertakes is their “Undie Fundie” campaign. Helping Hands purchases and distributes new underwear, socks, sleepwear and toiletries to men, woman and children living in Westchester County shelters. As you can imagine, these items are the hardest to collect because they have to be brand new.
After watching this group in action, it’s easy to see that, not only are they working for a great cause, they have fun doing it. And this correlation might not be anecdotal. According to interviews conducted by Gallup to determine global charitable behavior‑which incorporates all types of giving, including volunteering, as part of the “World Giving Index, 2012,” the degree of one’s charity depends more on personal happiness than on one’s wealth.
Salice summed up the day by saying, “We know that one backpack filled with new school supplies provides dignity to an underprivileged child who might otherwise go to school with nothing. It may encourage learning along with, and not behind, peers. Making a difference in the life of a child, there is no greater gift. We are thrilled at the success of this record-breaking backpack event. Our most sincere thanks to our wonderful donors and volunteers, especially from our Town of Rye, for their amazing support every year.”
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