Observations: When a backpack could mean the world

Published on: August 28, 2013

In an era and culture of smartphones, electronic games and consumption, I was shown that an inexpensive, simple backpack could mean the world to a child in need. Mitch Traphagen Photo

In an era and culture of smartphones, electronic games and consumption, I was shown that an inexpensive, simple backpack could mean the world to a child in need. Mitch Traphagen Photo


The number of children in line clearly exceeded the number of backpacks that St. Vincent de Paul in Ruskin had to give away. They were just empty backpacks, 100 of them in all, with the giveaway scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. By 9 a.m., people were already lining up at the gate. By 10 a.m., most of the backpacks were already gone.

I am a photojournalist. I enjoy visually documenting life and displaying it on the pages of the newspaper. At that event, the most compelling and impactful (and painful) image would have been the face of the child after the last kid to get a backpack. A face of disappointment, sadness and, perhaps, even resignation. Those kids were far too young to be resigned about anything but the face of that child — the one that was told there were no more backpacks to give — would have possibly have brought about some help.

But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be there to see that child. I felt as though a balloon were growing in my chest and rather than ask one of the volunteers to call an ambulance, I left, driving away from the long line of people, with even more people showing up.  It was just a few minutes after 10 a.m. — the time the event was supposed to start — and somewhere in that crowd was the child that would be told, “I’m sorry, there are no more backpacks left.”

I didn’t know it at the time but the good people at St. Vincent de Paul had the situation covered.  Yes, they ran out of backpacks and immediately they began issuing rain checks to those who did not get one. Beyond the 100 backpacks they gave away that morning, there were another 112 rain checks given, with the additional backpacks procured by the weekend. They weren’t about to let a child go without if there was something they could do about it.

It’s all in vogue these days to blame the poor for being poor.  I’m sorry, that’s just not reality anymore, even if it ever was. Sure the economy is improving and jobs are coming back but they aren’t the same jobs that disappeared in the Great Recession.  The new jobs tend to be low-paying service jobs. There is currently no state in the nation where a family can secure housing and food and survive on minimum wage — and yet, even minimum wage is under attack.

I grew up in the 1960s and 70s and most of the kids I knew were just like me.  We weren’t rich but we weren’t desperately poor, either.  I never had to worry about missing a meal. Never. There were a handful of kids from what we thought were rich families and a larger handful from truly poor families. We didn’t have a lot, particularly in comparison to today, but we had what we needed and a little bit more.  As the youngest of four children, I benefited the most as my parent’s income kept increasing.

For many people, incomes aren’t increasing anymore. In fact, on average and accounting for the minimal inflation of the past years, they are decreasing. For anyone well fed, I’m not sure that it is entirely attractive to complain about social safety nets and cheer on the partisan games of cutting nutrition programs with your mouth full.  People, we’re talking about five or ten dollar backpacks for children being an expense that is simply too much to afford. Something is wrong and getting wronger.

Personal responsibility is all fine and dandy and makes for a good phrase to shout from the podiums of those who have regular good meals, but how do you force that overnight without impacting innocent children? They absolutely cannot understand the political divisiveness that is consuming this nation’s soul. They cannot begin to understand the calls for cuts in food assistance programs and even school lunch programs. They won’t learn anything from that but hunger. Is that really what we want for this nation? If we are still the land of the brave, we, and our elected leaders, should be brave enough to tackle such problems. Instead, we sweep them under the rug, knowing full well the poor are sometimes unfortunately seen but rarely heard. All the better for the rest of us, right?

Yes, I’m whining now but I am including myself in my own complaints. I don’t do nearly enough to help those in need. But I know full well a lot of you out there do help, and to a great degree.  No, unlimited handouts aren’t the answer and, in fact, I believe they contribute (sometimes greatly) to the problem, but neither are the heartless, soulless political games played in Washington and Tallahassee that immediately serves to cut aid to those who need it most.  This is not a change that can happen instantly without some serious suffering — it must be gradual and it must be done with compassion and the recognition that not all poor people are to blame for being poor. Yet those politicians advocating for such things do so with their mouths full of food and wallets full of cash.  To them it perhaps makes some sense as we have shown ourselves to not be the most patient generation. “Gradual” doesn’t work well for a generation who screams, “Hurry up!” at the microwave oven.

I am grateful to St. Vincent de Paul and the numerous other area organizations that are dedicated to helping people in need. I am grateful to the many of you who set the example of helping others, often without bringing attention to yourselves. I learned something that week, watching children pick from the dwindling supply of backpacks. I will try harder to follow your example. I will try harder to help those who need it.

The St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store is located on Third Street, directly behind St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Ruskin. For more information, visit