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Making back to school a little easier

Community generosity keeps Project Backpack going strong

August 26, 2014
ALTON — Who doesn't remember the days when going back to school was an exciting event?

Many young kids looked forward to the start of school, as it meant new backpacks and new school supplies to get ready for the year ahead.

There was a measure of excitement about the whole thing.

That's what prompted Purr Whalley to start Project Backpack just about a decade ago and it's what inspires Kelly Sullivan and the Alton Central School Parent Teachers Student Association to keep it going these days.

"I had heard of other communities doing it," Whalley said. "And I was aware there were people in town who could use a little help."

Whalley led the charge for Project Backpack, but used Main Street, Alton's newsletter in those days, as a way to publicize it and get it noticed, giving her a gateway to the community.

"The first few years, we had specific kids," she noted, but after a couple of years, the decision was made to just make it school supplies in general.

"It doesn't take much," Whalley said. "It's such an awesome feeling for kids to go back to school with new stuff."

Whalley admits that some of the reason she started Project Backpack had to do with the fact that her kids were no longer in school.

"It was empty nesting, I had that urge to buy school supplies," she said. "It was kind of a therapy to me."

Whalley began to realize that the program might be better run through the PTSA at Alton Central School, allowing the school to identify families who might need help. When the idea was brought to the group, Sullivan climbed on board and even though she no longer has kids at Alton Central, she continues to run the program.

"Purr came to the PTSA hoping to have us pick it up and grow it and that's what we did," Sullivan said.

While parts of the program have changed over the years, the generosity of the Alton community continues to shine through each and every time Sullivan goes into Profile Bank to pick up the donations.

On Monday morning, Aug. 25, she had just stopped by the drop off location at the bank and said she was once again blown away by the response, even though it had only been a few days since she'd stopped and collected stuff.

"People are just fantastic," she said. "It's a great feeling every year to see people come through and do this for the kids."

The Gilman Library is where things start, as each year there is a tree with lists of school supplies (this year's theme is Dr. Seuss) and people can stop by and take a list and pick up what's on the list. They then bring the supplies to the Alton Profile Bank office, where they can leave the donation and Sullivan comes to pick it up and bring it to the school office. However, any donations of supplies are welcome, even if someone shops without a list. Sullivan notes that every year someone donates two cases of notebooks.

"Profile Bank is fantastic," she said. "And so is Holly (Brown) at the Gilman Library."

Sullivan noted that this year some family issues had her occupied in late July when she usually gets Project Backpack up and running and Brown stepped up and put everything together at the library.

"It's really is a community effort," she said. "We couldn't do it without Holly and everyone at Profile."

Sullivan points out, as Whalley noted as well, that it's a great thing for kids to go back to school with new supplies.

"It's so important to start them out on a positive note, especially when they're younger," she said. "It helps make the whole school experience more positive."

Every couple of days, Sullivan stops by Profile Bank and picks up the supplies, then brings them to Alton Central School, allowing school staff to determine who might need assistance with supplies.

She also notes there are monetary donations that come in and the decision is made on how to spend that money. One year, it was on water bottles to keep kids hydrated during the warm spells in the school.

"It can vary," Sullivan said. "Things change year to year as to what's required."

Sullivan also pointed out that they make it a special point to not forget about the older kids, who are sometimes overlooked in the process, making special lists for stuff they might need.

She also notes that many parents make shopping a family activity. They visit the library with their kids and take a list in an effort to teach kids about helping others.

"That's what it's all about," she said. "The community coming together and doing the right thing."

She notes that everything donated by the public gets used, even if not right away, as needs change as the school year rolls along and situations arise.

For Sullivan, who has her kids helping pick up supplies every few days, it's a great feeling to see the generosity.

"Every year, it makes my day," she said. "Going back to school should be easy, but it can be nerve-wracking. Anything that we can do is a positive."

Supplies are accepted at Profile Bank through Aug. 31. Anyone looking for more information on Project Backpack can call Sullivan at 875-2725.

Joshua Spaulding can be reached at 569-3126 or sportsgsn@salmonpress.com

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