“We will provide 10,000 backpacks to students in need in Colorado Springs.” This was the mission statement of a new collaboration called the Backpack Bash, of which I was put in charge as COSILoveYou’s 2019-2020 intern. Our first meeting involved a group of nonprofit executives, all whom had done smaller but similar events on their own. We discussed what we wanted the event to be, and our goal to serve families. This was in October—before “social distancing” had any meaning in the U.S., before we had any idea just how great the need would be in 2020.
After months of planning and collaboration, the corona shutdown in March forced the Backpack Bash team to change our entire strategy. The biggest question was, can we still pull this off? Our partners and team leaders answered on a zoom call one by one: yes. Families still needed help, and we should try to provide as many backpacks and supplies as possible. But how would we deliver thousands of backpacks across five locations while maintaining social distancing and other health guidelines? The answer: a drive-thru.
In a time where businesses and nonprofits were struggling to stay afloat, we saw overwhelming
support through sponsorships pour in from the community. Huge, decorated bins were set out to collect school supplies at local Walmart Supercenters. Churches organized drive-thru donations, which people went out of their way to attend even though some hadn’t physically set foot in a church building in months. Church after church arrived at our storage site, as we unloaded cartfuls of backpacks, notebooks, binders, and pencils. The donations overflowed into two storage rooms, the warehouse floor covered in bins full to brim with school supplies. Deliveries paid for by private donations arrived in pallets of cardboard boxes that stood taller than me. We were astounded.
The first day volunteers arrived at our storage site, Stu Davis, COSILoveYou Executive Director, tried to put into words just how long and hard our teams had worked to make this event possible. “You are part of something big, bigger than any of us could have done on our own,” he said, to the masked faces of our volunteers who had taken time out of their day to help us sort and pack backpacks. Everyone from parents to kids were excited to get started. The storage site hummed with activity and upbeat music. The Gazette reporters, Pikes Peak United Way, and COSILoveYou social media crews rushed to capture the heartwarming photos of pencil bins and volunteers grinning with their newly stuffed backpacks.
In the course of two weeks, with three volunteer days and six shifts, two storage sites, and four box trucks making deliveries for four days, volunteers had packed 7,000 backpacks full of school supplies. What had felt impossible had become a reality, thanks to the incredible efforts of the community coming together for the sake of the city.
The Saturday of our first Backpack Bash event, August 1st, was an emotional one for many of us. Months of coordinating, planning, and fundraising paid off in the wide smiles of kids reaching through car windows to receive their backpacks. At the Westside location at Coronado High School, a little boy launched out of the side window to give a volunteer a hug. A mom pulled away from our East Location at Mountain Springs Church in tears. In interviews I kept hearing Stu say, “This is the hardest start to the school year we have ever seen.” I could feel it in the air, with the fun music and wide, welcoming smiles of our volunteers: A positive story like this – a community coming together to help those in need, to put smiles on faces – was something that all of us missed and needed.
The Backpack Bash was a collaborative event that would not have been possible without every person involved—from nonprofit leaders, to photographers, to truck drivers, to volunteers, to a $5 donation that was enough to buy a student a new backpack. I was humbled to be part of something so big, so uplifting and so needed in a year like 2020. It was an event that had never been done before, that spoke to the unity of Colorado Springs, and just how much people care for one another and are capable of coming together for a cause.
Written by Mariah Stewart, 2019 COSILoveYou Fellow