07/17/2013 02:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Operation Backpack 2013: Getting Homeless Kids to School With a Smile on Their Faces

Every year, Volunteers of America organizes Operation Backpack, a citywide effort to buy as many new backpacks as possible, fill them with school supplies geared towards the needs of each grade and put them in the hands of New York City's homeless kids. Every year, they set a higher goal of how many backpacks they want to fill. Every year, they hit that total (just like Jerry Lewis used to raise more money every year with his Labor Day Telethon). And every year, there are that many more kids in the shelter system who need them.

"Each year we try to meet the need," says Paige Davis, the actress and TV personality best known for Trading Spaces. "And every year the need grows, especially in the last few years."

This year, Operation Backpack -- which is already in full swing -- plans to buy and fill more than 15,000 backpacks. So how does this work? From now until August 9th, New Yorkers are encouraged to look at the checklist of what kids need for school, buy some supplies and/or a backpack and donate it to the cause so volunteers can stuff and sort the supplies and distribute them to kids in homeless shelters around the city before the new school year begins.

Donating has never been easier. You can of course donate money directly to Volunteers of America and let them do the shopping. Or you can buy the supplies yourself and drop them off at any designated site around the city -- in the last few years, that has included any of the ubiquitous Duane Reade stores so anyone who gets on or off a subway will surely see plenty of options during their daily commute. (To be clear, you can buy the supplies anywhere and drop them off at Duane Reade's pickup spots.) Other locations include the Grand Hyatt, the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side and so on. Check here for a complete list in every borough.

Any donation is greatly appreciated, of course, but Davis emphasizes how important it can be to teach more fortunate kids about those around them. "Maybe you fill a backpack for your child and together you fill a backpack for someone else," suggests Davis, who has been a spokesperson for this program and Volunteers of America for more than a decade. "It helps young people understand there's a world bigger than them."

The supplies are all new, which is an important booster for kids who need all the self-esteem they can get.

"On the first day of school, they look and feel different from other kids," explains Davis, who was recruited to the cause by her friend Rachel Weinstein, the VP/Chief Development & Communications Officer at VoA.

"Putting aside not having the tools to study and the impact that has," says Davis, "if they don't have a backpack and worry that other people will know they're poor or homeless -- they don't go. They run and hide."

Even a campaign as straightforward and obvious as Operation Backpack can engender cynical criticism. Isn't this just a Band Aid on the problem of homelessness? Shouldn't we be tackling that instead of handing out backpacks?

"We're helping to end homelessness at the root," explains Davis. "We're getting them to go to grade school and high school and college and become active, functioning, happy participants in society. Volunteers of America is very much about ending the cycle. It's not about pushing them out of shelters; it's about a tremendous amount of counseling and support to get them on their feet."

But even with that long-term focus, it's important to do everything to keep kids in a stable, school-focused frame of mind. If a kid slips a few weeks or few months behind in school, they may never recover. So even if a family gets out of the shelter system and back on their feet, it's crucial kids stay on top of their education.

Davis has been a passionate supporter for years, doing everything from helping to take posters touting the drive to every single Duane Reade location in the city one year during a ferocious rainstorm to the treat of seeing a room full of thousands and thousands of backpacks after Sort Week.

"When you see mountains of backpacks filled with school supplies, you think, Oh my gosh, it worked!" says Davis. This year, they intend to make it work again and guarantee as many kids as possible stay in school and have the notebooks, calculators, pens, crayons and other supplies they need to not just attend school but do so with pride. Here's Davis talking some more about the program. Head to Operation Backpack for more info on the New York City event and details on how it's spreading around the country.

New York News

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