YMCA to provide more than 1,000 free backpacks for school children in need

For 19 years, YMCA branches throughout eastern Hillsborough County have collected backpacks and school supplies for youngsters whose families are in stressed financial situations. This year, the backpack giveaway is expected to benefit more than 1,000 students of all ages. Families must be pre-approved to receive the backpacks. PHOTO COURTESY OF Lalita Llerena / TAMPA YMCA

BY YVETTE C. HAMMETT

A lost job, a sick child or an unexpected emergency can set a family back, making back-to-school season a stressful time, financially.

For the 19th year in a row, the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA is hosting its annual Backpack Outreach Event July 29, partnering with ECHO (Emergency Care Help Organization), to stuff and gift backpacks to more than 1,000 needy youngsters of all ages.

Families must be pre-qualified and can still do so by emailing Kavita Marballi at Kavita.Marballi@tampaymca.org or calling 813-684-1371, ext. 1606.

There is also still time to donate. A $20 donation helps send one student back to school with a backpack full of school supplies. Community members can donate college-rule paper, backpacks, wide-rule paper, pocket folders and more. Drop-off locations are YMCA Camp Cristina, Campo Family YMCA and North Brandon Family YMCA. Checks can be made out to Campo YMCA and should reference “backpack event.”

“The day of the event, we have more than 1,000 kids coming out with their families to Camp Cristina in Riverview,” said Y spokeswoman Lalita Llerena. “Our board and staff members plan throughout the year for this. When families qualify for financial needs or other hard times, they are given a certain time to arrive.”

The day is filled with excitement as the students receive age-appropriate backpacks filled with all the essentials for back to school.

“We register and check them in and pick a backpack for each of the children,” Llerena said. “Our volunteers and staff members divvy them up to make sure they are categorized by gender and age.

“We start collecting right before summer,” she said. “We get donations from our partners. Not only do we collect at Y’s throughout Hillsborough County, but churches, businesses and other nonprofits pitch in. ECHO is a partner.

“If we don’t meet our goal, which this year is 1,100 filled backpacks, then we take money donated and buy the shortfall,” Llerena said.

The Y reaches out to school guidance counselors and they provide a list of those eligible, which must be pre-qualified. “We also go to our database, and our membership and we ask them if they want to come,” she said.

There is also an ECHO database from which to draw students in need. “They bring in people that qualify through tragic loss, like fire and they give us the names,” she said.

“Our clients are people we see on a day-to-day basis,” said Sharmaine Burr, director of social services for ECHO, which serves the greater Brandon area, including Riverview. “These clients are experiencing hardship.

“Summertime is a very tough time for families because it costs more money for families,” Burr said. “Parents’ pay rates don’t go up when summer comes. The children are eating more food at home, and there are those families that ‘life just happened to.’ You don’t factor in the car breakdown or something goes wrong in the home, or a child gets sick and you are paying for medicine.”

The ECHO estimates that the backpack project saves about $25 or more per child.  “I say that on the low end,” Burr said. “ECHO is also able to give them shoe vouchers to Shoe Carnival at $20, so this offsets them buying shoes for each child. It has increased over the years. It used to be $10.”

Funding for the back-to-school project comes from grants, donations and drives. “It’s just the whole community coming together,” Burr said.

Even after the event ECHO still provides supplies, Burr said. We still provide all the way to the start of school.”

The YMCA’s Camp Cristina is located at 9840 Balm Riverview Road, Riverview.

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