Backpacks of Joy

By Ellen Seidman  

On a hot, sunny day, children stream out of a building with giant smiles on their faces and new backpacks in their hands or hooked over wheelchairs. It’s actually not their first day of school—they are at LifeTown, it is the last day of Allie’s Summer Camp, and they have just received a gift—a backpack filled with supplies —that will get their school year off to a great start.

Friendship Circle’s annual backpack giveaway is the brainchild of Lisa Gutkin, a mom of four from Denville, N.J., and a longtime Friendship Circle volunteer. “My connection to Friendship Circle has to do with my Bubbie, Lily Roth,” says Lisa. “Growing up, I saw her love for my uncle, David, who had special needs. She was dedicated to making his life a happy one, and she tried her best for inclusion. But back then, it was not easy to have a child with disabilities. When I first heard about Friendship Circle, I knew in honor of my Bubbie I had to get involved.”

Lisa signed up to pitch in at Allie’s Camp. She and her family participated in the annual FCwalk. Still, she felt the need to do more. In 2008, while Lisa was in the throes of getting school supplies for her kids at the start of the school year, she had an idea.

“I thought about all the things parents from Friendship Circle must deal with in addition to having to get school supplies, and my heart went out to them,” she says. The therapy appointments, the doctor visits, the insurance paperwork—she wanted parents to have one less to-do. And so, Lisa approached Toba Grossbaum and Chavi Rosenblum with a plan to buy backpacks for kids and fill them with school supplies.

The program started as Backpacks & Brunch. There were 12 Friendship Circle children signed up for backpacks and 12 women—friends of Lisa’s—who packed them at her kitchen table, an assembly line of love. As interest in the initiative grew, The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey stepped up to co-sponsor it and the assistant director of women’s philanthropy, Robin Leitner, helped gather more volunteers.

Eventually, the backpack crew began to get details from Friendship Circle about a child’s favorite colors, characters, sports teams, and needed supplies, based on a list parents filled out. Each volunteer received the name of a child and their information; they would then choose and buy a backpack, pens, pencils, erasers, cases, folders, highlighters, markers, and crayons.  

The backpacks were as varied as the children themselves. A boy interested in becoming a firefighter, for instance, got a red backpack with a firefighter decal on it and red folders. “The moms putting the bags together could have just stopped at a favorite color to personalize the backpacks, but they’d attach fun keychains or include a stuffed animal or a lunch box,” says Lisa. “They went above and beyond.”

Hundreds of backpacks later, the program now serves dozens of children and teens, and about the same number of volunteers. “This year, my two daughters and I had fun shopping for a girl, Dina,” who likes pink and purple, says Lisa, noting they found a ton of purple and pink school supplies.

Lisa and her two girls were at LifeTown to hand out backpacks and revel in the oohs, the ahhs, and the looks of sheer delight. “One little boy, who’d been seated at a table doing a craft, tried to make a dash for the lobby upon receiving his backpack—he said, ‘I want to show grandma!’ ” she recalls. Parents are equally grateful; one mom wrote the Friendship Circle to express her thanks that the backpack her son received was large enough to hold his foot braces.

“The reactions of the kids are always the highlight,” says Lisa. “Dina squealed with joy and gave us big hugs when she got her backpack. Our hearts were full.”

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