By Emily J. Weitz
Freshly sharpened pencils, spiral notebooks with 500 untouched pages, brightly colored crayons neatly nestled in a brand new box. These are the types of first-day-of-school necessities that many people take for granted. But for too many kids on the East End, the first day of school begins a long game of catch-up on an unlevel playing field. That’s where the idea for Supplies for Success came from. It’s an initiative that provides new backpacks, fully loaded, to thousands of kids in need. This Friday, East End families are invited to spend a couple of hours making a difference in the lives of kids who need it by coming to the Ross Lower School and stuffing backpacks.
Supplies for Success is supported by the UJA-Federation of New York, an organization devoted to caring for people in need throughout the course of their lives.
“We’re the country’s largest local philanthropy,” says Nancy Powers, who is the associate director of the Long Island region of the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Federation of New York. “We fund a network of 100 non-sectarian agencies that help any and all. From helping impoverished people to working with seniors who are homebound and people with special needs, there’s a whole host of things we do. One project is to collect and assemble backpacks across Long Island.”
The idea was the brainchild of Mindy Richenstein, a volunteer who wasn’t satisfied with the educational status quo. Twelve years ago, she was thinking about what she could ask people to bring in to give to people in need. She came up with the idea of school supplies.
“This country offers a free education,” she says, “but the playing field isn’t level if you’re coming in without the basic tools needed to learn.”
Tools include notebooks, binders, filler paper, pens, pencils, crayons, markers, rulers, and a dozen more items, all neatly nestled in a brand new backpack. Supplies for Success goes through organizations like schools, camps, places of worship, and shelters to find families in need. This year, they’ll be donating to the new Hamptons GLBT Center at the Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor, as well as homeless shelters and other outlets.
“Across Long Island we expect to give out more than 5,000 backpacks,” says Richenstein, “and of that, 850 will go to the Hamptons.”
One of the reasons an initiative like this is so important to the greater organization of the UJA is that it is an access point to reach families and help them in bigger ways.
“We distribute the backpacks through a network of agencies,” said Powers. “Through one of our JCCs, a woman was receiving backpacks, and she shared with a social worker the rest of her story, that she was a victim of domestic violence. We were immediately able to put her in touch with a caseworker for domestic services. Often the backpack is a door opener for people to speak out.”
Richenstein believes that an event like this is important in the Hamptons, where poverty tends to be completely overlooked.
“The Hamptons is beautiful and wonderful,” she says, “but it’s nice to bring a reality check in. Across Long Island, poverty is hidden, and we are shining a light on it. It is still very prevalent. We like to raise everyone’s consciousness to poverty in our midst.”
For volunteers, this event can be very meaningful. It’s something parents and kids can do together to give back.
“Everyone feels they have done something important, concrete, impactful,” says Richenstein. “We have kids as young as three attending the event and grandparents as old as 80 plus.”
The way it works is this: you have to sign up online (www.ujafedny.org/sfshamptons). An $18 registration fee covers the cost of the backpack and all the supplies.
“We purchase most of our supplies in bulk at pennies on the dollar,” says Richenstein. “Our backpacks cost us under $18 filled, where buying it retail would cost $65.”
Then, between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Friday at the Ross Lower School Field House on Butter Lane in Bridgehampton the packing will happen.
“We always do this the third week in August,” says Richenstein, “so the kids can walk into school feeling hopeful and happy and confident.”
She believes that to start with this level playing field, it changes everything.
“I think this could be their ticket out of poverty,” says Richenstein. “Education is the pathway out of poverty. If we level the playing field, we can increase the chances of their success.”
To sign up for this event or to learn more, go to www.ujafedny.org/sfshamptons.