Back-to-school time is the most wonderful time of the year for many parents (and even some kids), but not so much for those children living in shelters, who often go back empty-handed and unarmed for readin’, ’ritin’ and ’rithmetic.

But thanks to Operation Backpack, more than 20,000 kids living in New York City shelters will be given the tools they need to succeed for the coming school year.

Dozens of volunteers gathered in a warehouse on Manhattan’s West Side Thursday to quality check and pack thousands of new backpacks with everything from pens and notebooks to flash drives and hand sanitizer, which will all be handed out in the coming weeks to kids from pre-K to 12th grade.

Operation Backpack was founded as a community service of Volunteers of America-Greater New York by Rachel Weinstein in 2002 and has since become a national initiative.


“I happened to be at one of [VOA’s] shelters in Manhattan, and kids were getting on a school bus with nothing. As a mom, I was devastated,” Weinstein said. “This is only the second year that we’ve been able to give absolutely every child absolutely everything that they need.”

Operation Backpack is funded by the public, and Weinstein said about 250 companies held drives and donated supplies. Duane Reade, for example, raised $95,000 from a two-week campaign and gave 7,000 flash drives, and HarperCollins donates thousands of dictionaries and thesauruses annually.

Each year, Weinstein sees how beneficial Operation Backpack is for the children who receive bags. In fact, one boy she met when he was 15 is now a VOA volunteer who just finished his first year in college. “He credits Operation Backpack for really inspiring him,” she said.

Gianna, who will be a sixth grader at PS 191 Riverside School for Makers & Artists in Manhattan, will receive her second bag from Operation Backpack this year.

“These are all the supplies I need!” the 11-year-old said excitedly as she stood near a mountain of Crayola crayons, the budding artist's favorite supply of all. “Lots of kids hate school, but you need to be grateful for school because that’s when you learn more things for when you get older.” 

For more info or to make a donation to Operation Backpack, visit

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