How the COVID-19 Crisis is Impacting Operation Backpack® 2020

Operation Backpack® is a community service of VOA-Greater New York and a critical resource for students experiencing homelessness in New York City. Its goal is to provide a new, top-quality backpack filled with grade-specific supplies to every child in shelter who needs one before his or her first day of school.

Currently, there are nearly 21,000 children experiencing homelessness in New York City who rely on a shelter as their temporary home. Most are school age. By having a full backpack before their first day, these students can start school looking and feeling more like their classmates and less like children in need, with the supplies necessary to do their work.

This year, the COVID-19 crisis is entirely disrupting the way we run Operation Backpack® 2020.

The success of Operation Backpack® relies on community engagement – large teams of volunteers physically showing up. The pandemic is putting at risk our ability to meet the school supply needs of approximately 19,000 NYC students experiencing homelessness. In response, we are prepared to pivot to a new delivery model for 2020 if we can raise $500,000.

Operation Backpack® traditionally counts on:

  • 300+ companies holding drives at their work sites to collect 9,000+ full backpacks in July.
  • 2,000 corporate volunteers to prepare the backpacks for pick up by the shelters in August.

But, with employees mainly working remotely and social distancing rules in place, we cannot count on companies to organize successful workplace drives, or teams of employees to volunteer during Sort Week. Even when businesses do re-open, it is unrealistic to think they will be able to devote the time and resources to organize and carry out this major volunteer endeavor, or to meet our timeline. Plus, the donation of 10,000 gorgeous, brand name backpacks we normally count has not been confirmed for this year, though we still hope they will come through.

The NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and Department of Education (DOE) count on Operation Backpack® to outfit students living in the city’s shelters with backpacks full of school supplies. So do teachers who, if Operation Backpack® were cancelled this year, would need to reach even more deeply into their own pockets to provide their students with basic supplies. The cancelation of Operation Backpack® will be a huge step backwards for thousands of NYC’s youngest and most vulnerable residents. In addition to the concrete support it provides, Operation Backpack® brings such great joy to the littlest children who are thrilled to open and explore their backpacks and brand new school supplies. It also relieves the older students of the anxiety of wondering if they will have a backpack and supplies, or if they will have to walk into school on day one and face the stigma that comes with being homeless – or not go at all.

That said, with sufficient funding for Operation Backpack® 2020 we will:

  • Purchase 19,000 boxed sets of pre-packaged school supplies, shipped to our Chelsea site. The order for these must be placed by mid-May in order to ensure receipt by early August.
  • Purchase 5,500 backpacks to supplement existing inventory.
  • Postpone “Sort Week” to late August depending on when NYC schools are scheduled to open.
  • Recruit volunteers (or hire temps) to allocate the supply kits and backpacks for each shelter; these are individuals cleared to return to work; no more than 30 per shift.

As we adjust to this reality, we must purchase a large quantity of product to replace what is normally donated.

Your help is urgently needed to underwrite Operation Backpack® 2020. Learn how to get involved.