Backpack-Packing at UCM

Backpack-Packing at UCM

United Community Ministries organizes annual drive to bring school supplies to students in need.

Six hundred and fifty-five students from low-income families in the Mount Vernon area will be fully prepared to start school this year, thanks to United Community Ministries, volunteers of all ages, and local businesses and other organizations.

Most of the volunteers who spent last week stuffing backpacks with school supplies at the United Community Ministries (UCM) headquarters on Fordson Road were students themselves, earning community service hours required by their schools. Members of the Mount Vernon AARP volunteered to help pack and then distribute the backpacks, which have been stuffed with different supplies, from crayons to compasses, according to grade level. Residents of the Paul Spring Retirement Community labeled the backpacks, and the supplies were donated or paid for primarily by churches and small businesses in the community.

"So it’s really a big community connection," said Betsy Damitz, UCM’s volunteer coordinator.

UCM Director of Development Ruth Dawson noted that she had recently picked up an unexpectedly large donation of supplies collected by the vacation Bible school at Plymouth Haven Baptist Church. "This was just a one-week Bible school, but I’ve got an SUV full of things," said Dawson. "It’s wonderful."

LAST WEDNESDAY afternoon, Aug. 22, about 10 school-aged volunteers waited for a load of supplies to be brought in from Inova Mount Vernon Hospital, where the occupational therapy department had collected donations, so that they could sort the items and then continue stuffing backpacks.

Sam Foster, a rising ninth-grader at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, said she was getting an early start on the 80 hours of community service required for graduation from the school. Schoolmate Elizabeth Casano added that she, Foster and two other Georgetown Visitation students were also helping with the project "out of a general desire to help the community."

Damitz said sorting supplies and stuffing the backpacks usually takes about 10 days. However, she said, "I had a nice response with volunteers coming out, so we’re a little ahead of schedule." Some volunteers were turned away "because there were just too many," said Damitz.

The number of students receiving backpacks was up from 634 children last year, and 41 families were wait-listed. Jeanne Mitchler-Fiks, the organization’s Healthy Families manager, noted that, in 2001, UCM only distributed 180 backpacks. The rise in numbers, she said, was "partly because of population growth, but I think there are also more needy people who found out about it."

United Community Ministries is a nonprofit organization that serves low-income families in the Mount Vernon area.