Backpacks of Love serves children and their families who are homeless or otherwise in severe need. Homelessness is becoming a much more visible, prevalent problem in suburban areas like northern Metro Atlanta. Forsyth County, one of Georgia’s wealthier counties as measured by per capita income, just conducted its first ever survey of the homeless population.
Homeless children and youth, as defined by federal law, include the following:
- those who are sharing the housing of others due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason;
- children and youth who live in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations;
- those who live in emergency or transitional shelters;
- children and youth awaiting foster care placement;
- children and youth living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stops, or similar settings; and,
- children who, because parents or guardians are migrant workers, live in temporary housing circumstances such as what is described above.
Homeless children who are hungry often do poorly in school due to physical and emotional problems. Backpacks of Love seeks not only to address the physical need of hunger, but to improve a child’s health, performance in school, conduct, and self-esteem from knowing that others in this world they may never meet care about them and their livelihood.
Families in need are identified by school counselors and social workers, but their identity remains confidential. Backpacks of Love receives family numbers with a few anonymous details such as family size and age of children. Sponsors are assigned to an individual student and their family, shop for that assigned family, and pack a backpack. Backpacks are tagged which is delivered to the school. Backpacks are distributed to assigned families by school personnel, and empty backpacks are returned to the school to be reused.
This ministry was started through St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in January 2011 with a delivery of 11 backpacks to Piney Grove Middle School in Cumming. Since that time, we have added seventeen different schools in Forsyth and Fulton Counties to those we serve:
- Forsyth County
- Fulton County
- Midway Elementary
- Mimosa Elementary
- Shiloh Point Elementary
- Hembree Springs Elementary
- Big Creek Elementary
- Manning Oaks Elementary
- Matt Elementary
- Cogburn Woods Elementary
- Sawnee Elementary
- Mountain Park Elementary
- Otwell Middle
- Taylor Road Middle
- Liberty Middle
- Elkins Pointe Middle
- Piney Grove Middle
- Roswell High School
- South Forsyth Middle
- West Forsyth High School
- Forsyth Central High School
In 2012 we also began delivering food, clothing, and other needed items to Jesse’s House, a shelter for adolescent women located in Forsyth County.
In addition to food items, Backpacks of Love has responded to other needs as well. At the beginning of the year we provide school supplies in brand new backpacks for the students we serve. Additionally, school social workers give us guidance on families that may have particular, often emergency needs which we might be able to meet. We have supplied books for reading days, conducted two virtual baby showers to supply expectant mothers recovering from homelessness, partnered with St. Joseph’s Food Pantry (a ministry of St. Brendan’s Catholic Church) to supply food over the summer to families of Piney Grove Middle School, and conducted a holiday gift card drive for Jesse’s House which raised almost $1,300.
Backpacks of Love operates entirely almost entirely through the stewardship of its sponsors and volunteer labor. Over 200 individual sponsors serve by filling backpacks of food, school supplies, or by making other donations. Four different churches, St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church, Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, St. Columba’s Episcopal Church and Cumming First United Methodist Church, have an organized effort within their churches to assemble sponsors and donations. Additionally, individuals from a variety of area churches, including Johns Creek Baptist Church, First Redeemer Church, North Point Community Church, and Browns Bridge Community Church, are active sponsors. Volunteer students from South Forsyth High School and Taylor Road Middle School have pitched in to collect food and pack backpacks.
Backpacks of Love was also named by Mimosa Elementary School as its Partner of the Year in 2012, and has also received a grant for backpack purchases from the Piney Grove Middle School PTSA. John Ray, founder of Backpacks of Love, was awarded a “Light of Hope” award from the CASA of Forsyth County for his work in this cause.
For further information on Backpacks of Love, please contact John Ray at [email protected]. Tax deductible contributions to Backpacks of Love can be made to the North Georgia Community Foundation, FBO Backpacks of Love, 615F Oak Street, Gainesville, GA 30501.