Most of the approximately 150 children making their way through a long line at a church on Eau Claire’s west side late Wednesday afternoon couldn’t hide their excitement about receiving supplies of all sorts as they prepare for the upcoming school year.
One after another they stared wide-eyed at a row of tables covered with about 200 backpacks of all sizes and colors near one entrance of Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, 1120 Cedar St.
One young boy let out an unbelieving “whoa,” as he examined the backpacks pile while others scurried to the table to pick out their favorites. Volunteers manning the table directed children to backpacks, then on down the line, where they were handed such school supplies as notebooks, crayons, markers, pencils and glue sticks.
Natasha Bryn watched her sons Sawyer, 10, and Kasmer, 6, look excitedly at the backpacks before choosing one.
“Wow, there are so many of them,” Kasmer said before picking one a moment later.
The boys were among many Roosevelt Elementary School students receiving free school supplies via Project Backpack, an effort overseen by the church that provides children who attend the school with school supplies for the upcoming year. Children who attend the school also were able to receive free haircuts from employees of Sport Clips as part of the event as well as access used clothing, take part in games and enjoy a meal with their family.
Bryn said the church’s giving out school supplies instead of parents having to buy them provides a big boost financially to her and many like her.
“This is a big help,” she said. “Getting school supplies is expensive, and this is benefiting a lot of people.”
Other parents agreed with that sentiment. Many students who attend Roosevelt come from low-income families.
“This is definitely very helpful to us,” Kalia Xiong said as her three young sons, Ben, Leo and Roy, had their new backpacks filled with school supplies. “Paying for all of this ourselves would be expensive.”
Those comments are music to the ears of Cindy Hoenisch. Six years ago she decided to start Project Backpack after hearing 42 percent of Roosevelt students lived in low-income families.
Leaders at Good Shepherd, where Hoenisch is a member, were looking to connect more directly with their surrounding neighborhood, and Project Backpack seemed like a perfect way to do so.
“As a church, we wanted to make a real difference in the community around us,” Hoenisch said.
Hoenisch and other members of Good Shepherd’s outreach team solicited donations from church members and businesses and compiled backpacks and other school supplies. They invited Roosevelt families to attend and were overwhelmed by the response.
“We knew right away we were on to something,” outreach team member Lynn Salter said.
Since then the effort has continued to grow. Last year about 160 students were served, and this year’s figure is expected to top that, Hoenisch said.
“Look, most of them are gone,” Hoenisch said, pointing to tables where nearly 200 backpacks had been arranged less than an hour earlier.
Word of the success of Project Backpack is spreading. On Wednesday Ginny Lien, a member of Trinity Lutheran Church, 1314 E. Lexington Blvd., spent time at Good Shepherd, hoping to learn about Project Backpack and possibly host it at her church to benefit students of Flynn Elementary School.
As more students received backpacks nearby, Hoenisch and Salter reflected on the results of an idea six years ago. They grew emotional as they realized the program’s impact.
“It’s pretty amazing to think about,” Hoenisch said. “Our hearts are really in this. It’s so gratifying to know that what we are doing is helping people.”