ECC helps community with free backpacks, supplies, and hope

On Aug. 11, Elgin Community College (ECC) in Illinois will have about 2,000 backpacks filled will school supplies lined up in its gymnasium to give to local K-12 students whose families may not be able to afford to buy them.

Outside the building, thousands of local residents—typically 4,000-6,000—will already be waiting at 10 a.m. to try to get one of the backpacks for their kids.

ECC isn’t the only community colleges in the U.S. that holds such free backpack events. In fact, quite a few two-year colleges do. However, it’s what is happening in the community that ECC serves that raises eyebrows: In the college’s service area, about 1,200 K-12 students are homeless, and 40,000 are considered low-income and receive reduced or free meals at school.

Even with supply donations from local businesses and organizations, the 2,000 backpacks prepared at ECC are not enough, said Katie Storey, coordinator of student life at the college. And each year, the demand increases.

“The need outweighs what we are able to provide,” Storey said.

Other community colleges that run such programs may soon face similar situations as the U.S. approaches its highest poverty rate since 1965.

Continuing a good thing

ECC has operated the program for three years. Previously, the local K-12 district held a smaller supply fair, but tighter budgets and other circumstances prompted it to close. In 2009, a committee comprising local organizations decided to continue the program, called Project Backpack, with ECC leading the effort.

Since it started, the idea behind the program was to help defray some of the educational costs for families. Parents spend on average $688 on back-to-school related expenses, with about $95 going toward school supplies, according to the National Retail Federation.

The ECC event is more than just distributing school supplies to families in need, Storey said. The college and its partners—which include about a dozen local organizations, such as school districts and hospitals—take the opportunity to provide families with information on health care, dental care, tutoring services and other services available in the community.

The event also doubles as a service learning opportunity for students who attend ECC and local high schools. Even former graduates return to lend a hand, Storey said. Some volunteers help because they received similar assistance from their schools, churches or other community organizations, and now they want to “pay it forward,” Storey said.

“It is so personal and meaningful to all who are part of it,” she said.

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