Beginning a new school year can be a stressful time for a child, especially if they don’t have the required supplies. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there were more than 1.3 million homeless school-age children living in the U.S. in 2015-2016. Feed the Children is working to make a difference in the lives of these children through its Homeless Education and Literacy Program (H.E.L.P.).
Because education is one of the best ways to help children escape the cycle of poverty, Feed the Children has promoted school attendance and completion through this program since 2006, distributing more than one million backpacks to homeless and at-risk youth across the U.S. in all 50 states. Each backpack is filled with school supplies, personal care items, books and snacks. These backpacks provide children with a fighting chance to have a brighter future.
“Many families are worried about just getting the next meal for their families or trying to find a place to stay for the night,” says Kathy Brown, the homeless education coordinator for Oklahoma public schools. “The child’s school supplies are the least of their worries when the families are in survival mode.”
Many of these children move between hotel rooms, shelters, and relatives’ houses. Some stay with friends couch-surfing until they have to find a new place to sleep. They have no stability and no place to keep their belongings – so they carry everything with them at all times. And, because many of these children do not have a backpack, often they are left to use a plastic sack or paper bag to carry their personal belongings, as well as school-related materials like papers, pencils and books.
“To each child who receives a backpack, it’s more than just a backpack. It builds their self-esteem, it preserves their dignity and it is something they can be proud to call their own,” said Erin Carlstrom, director of education partnerships at Feed the Children.
Melissa Schoonmaker, a Feed the Children partner who works with homeless children in Los Angeles County, remembers giving an 8-year-old girl her own backpack with school supplies and a few books to read at home.
Schoonmaker said the girl looked at her and told her that “this is the best day ever.”
“Youth have a normal progression, certain milestones to reach. When you throw in homelessness, it’s like boulders being thrown in their path,” Schoonmaker said. “They just want stability, to be able to get to school each day. The work we’re doing is making a difference every day.”
For more information about the H.E.L.P. program, visit feedthechildren.org/how/us/education.