Adventures in Volunteering: The Bienestar Backpack Project

I know I ramble on sometimes about volunteer projects I attend, but this latest project is one that was probably the most meaningful for the year (so far).

I met with the director and program coordinator of Bienestar in early August to discuss potential volunteer projects I could help set up through Hands on Greater Portland. At some point during the meeting, we talked about school supplies and they told me that they have kids who go to school with no backpacks, no supplies, but who are eager to attend school every day regardless.

You know how sometimes you just say things based on emotion and don't really think it through completely? That happened during this meeting - I opened my mouth and I said, "I will find a backpack and supplies for every child in your four homework clubs! And have ten volunteers show up to stuff the bags!" We are talking about 99 kids! It just seemed like the right thing - kids should not start school without the supplies needed. Especially kids who are dedicated enough to want to learn that they take part in the homework club, which requires the kids provide their progress report card every month to the homework club teachers, who closely monitor their grades and work with their teachers in school to ensure they are on the right track to succeed in their grade. Kids who are willing to do that deserve to have a good start to their school year.

And so I set up a date for a volunteer project with volunteers from Hands On Greater Portland and left the meeting...and then it hit me....what did I just do?? 99 backpacks? AND supplies?? And I only had 3.5 weeks to do it.

Did I mention I'm not wealthy? No, I'm a single mom. Typically, just by definition, that equals: low on money. And while I don't consider myself poor, I certainly do not have the means to provide what I just offered. So I did what most people would do: ask every human they meet to donate. And in this worked! It actually happened.  I did get a local Best Buy store who happened to be looking for a place to donate and volunteer, and it was as if magic happened. My friends, family, the company I work for and the company my friend Alison works for came up with half the backpacks and about 3/4 of the supplies needed to fill them. Best Buy came through with the other half of the bags and the other 1/4 of the supplies. And we DID IT!!!

Last Friday night, some wonderful people came over and spent FIVE hours helping me verify I had the supplies I needed, and helping me do some very necessary serious math problems to determine how many of each item goes to each child in each grade.

Keep in mind that we had varied numbers for each grade, so it wasn't like-oh, 140 folders and 7 grades-that comes out to 20 folders each grade and if there is 20 kids, that's one folder each. No, it was like an SAT math problem...I know this probably doesn't make a lot of sense but trust me--it was not a simple task! And I wasn't sure exactly how many donations were coming in the morning from volunteers (including Best Buy), so I was basing my numbers on what I KNEW I had-as being short is not okay-but having extra definitely was okay. It was a much bigger task than I had planned for and I am very lucky I have such amazing friends- Thanks Tara, Cassidy, Abbey, John and Natalie!!!  And Andrew got everything ready for us to take a quick dinner break of BBQ was just a great night of teamwork!!

Saturday morning, a small group from Hands On and a handful of Best Buy employees got together and filled the bags and it was a huge success!!!
The kids all were so excited with the amount of supplies we had!

They helped us unload the cars - trip after trip, giggling the entire time. It was so great that they were able to be a part of it!

They also helped us sort all the backpacks by what grade level they thought each bag was. They took it very seriously, but really enjoyed it. It was a much better system then having the adult volunteers sort them out!.
The kids who were already registered for the homework club at the site where we were working were able to come and pick out their backpacks while we were all there and that was the best ending to a great project. Seeing the excitement of the kids, watching their eyes widen with the choices they had to choose from, and hearing them talk to each other about what they got was so inspiring. It made us all really feel the difference we had made in the lives of these children.

We ended up with 119 backpacks, so we covered the 99 particpants of the Homework Club that I wanted - and had an extra 20 bags for other kids. We also had a fair amount of extra notebooks, pencils and glue sticks left over to help supply the homework clubs for the first half of the school year!

This project was something I took on - but one which I could not have done without the help of MANY people. It was not something I could have done alone-not at all, not in the slightest. Here is a list of the people who helped and/or contributed in some way (in no particular order):
  • Alison
  • John 
  • Cassidy
  • Abbey
  • My super-crafty friend, Julia
  • Wendy and her brother
  • Amy
  • Denis
  • Phil
  • My h.s. boyfriend Jason
  • My blogger buddy Flea
  • My one and only offspring, Andrew
  • My Momma
  • My Aunt Frankie
  • My sister Jenny
  • An old high school friend, Michelle
  • Another high school friend, Rob
  • Andrew's cousins, Brian and Kristie
  • Sara
  • Coworkers (aka friends): Nancy, Christy, Becky, Chris & Denise
  • My mortgage broker friend Tim
  • My cousin Jeni
  • Janet from NW Childrens Outreach
  • My company: Waggener Edstrom
  • Alison's company 
  • Best Buy

Thank you all so much for helping me make this happen!! Every small donation, every small bit of time dedicated to helping helped make a BIG difference in the lives of at least 99 children!!!

And if you ever think that you can't make a difference - YOU CAN!!!
If you ever think that you are just one person and can't possibly do something big--- YOU CAN!!!!!!!!

This was just an amazing experience and I will absolutely repeat this next year...but with 3 months of planning, not 3 weeks!


  1. Brian Miller said...:

    that is awesome and got to make you feel well as i bet they were uber excited as well...

  1. carma said...:

    you are a miracle worker - and it's all the more meaningful that you were able to get so many file folks to get involved

  1. Amazing! So inspirational and those pictures have me tearing up to see those smiles! Bravo!

  1. Denis said...:

    Way to Go. Please note for next time my company has a budget for volunteer/charity projects

  1. You, Madam, ROCK. What a thing to accomplish!

  1. Anonymous said...:

    Nice job kaylen! You have made a huge impact in the quality of life for these kids! They may never fully understand how much you did for them by organizing this whole thing....but they will feel good going to school with their new backpacks and should be very proud!

  1. Raven said...:

    That is just amazing! You are amazing!

  1. Unknown Mami said...:

    So so so proud of you and so happy and excited for the kids.

  1. At Bienestar, we felt like Kaylen came to us on angel wings. We had been so worried about our resident children going to school without backpacks and supplies and simply did not know where to turn for help. When she showed up and offered to help with this amazing project (and in 3 weeks time), we were so glad and so grateful. Program Services Manager Gracie Garcia and I were simply astonished at the project Kaylen pulled off in such a short time, rounding up donations, supplies, volunteers. I only WISH you all could have seen the faces of the children when we distributed 119 backpacks! It was amazing - and the gratitude of their parents who simply do not have the means to buy these things - brought us to tears. Kaylen, you are our BackPack Angel, visualize you with angel wings and a big backpack full of supplies for a hundred kids on your back. On behalf of the families that we serve, Thank you! Sincerely,
    Karen Shawcross, Executive Director of Bienestar


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