From Packing to the First Day of School: How the Backpack Coalition Helps Local Students Succeed
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From Packing to the First Day of School: How the Backpack Coalition Helps Local Students Succeed

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A 2023 Backpack Assembly Event

March 7, 2024

Learn what happens to donated backpacks and school supplies through the eyes of our Backpack Coalition and one distribution hub, Waukesha Food Pantry, in Waukesha County.

On any given day at the Waukesha Food Pantry, staff and volunteers serve families with some of life’s most basic needs: food and diapers. While they primarily focus on healthy and nutritious food needs, every August, the staff sees that families are struggling to afford school supplies for the upcoming school year. 

Even though the need is brief and comes around once a year, the backpacks don’t last long at the organization, which has long been a valued Diaper Bank Hub of United Way. And at United Way, the need for backpacks for the upcoming school year begins in March, with our Backpack Coalition.

Beginning around this time each year, United Way staff and volunteers take inventory of what we have for school supplies, and what we need. It’s during this time that we also look to refresh our schools/hubs with school supplies midway through the year. We begin to fill the need for supplies from monetary donations, and in May, supply drives begin at corporate and community partners which aid in the efforts to see students succeed. As donations come in – whether through dollars or supplies – staff and volunteers prepare them for upcoming backpack assembly events. These events don’t go unnoticed at the Waukesha Food Pantry, who see their supply of hundreds of backpacks dwindle after only one week, and completely gone by the second week.

“It’s been really great the last few years with United Way and the Backpack Coalition,” Michael Egly, Director of Program Services at the Waukesha Food Pantry, said. “Based on our past history, we expect to have a lot of folks planning for backpacks, and we want to have extra for the folks who are new or coming for the first time.”A student's first day at Browning Elementary

They’re not the only organization who has seen the need for school supplies grow. Backpacks through the Backpack Coalition are distributed throughout our four-county footprint with seven distribution hubs in Milwaukee, Waukesha, and southern Ozaukee and Washington counties helping students start the school year strong. In addition to these hubs, sixteen Milwaukee Community Schools Partnership schools and three Waukesha School District schools receive backpacks for students. These are given out during events that help students kick off the school year, such as Freshmen Bridge events for students enrolled at MCSP high schools. 

Regardless of where students receive their supply-filled backpacks, the help to families is always met with relief.

“When families come into the food pantry for the first time, they’ll say they need food assistance. And then we ask, ‘Do you need school supplies for your kids?’ and they’re very surprised!” Michael explained. “It’s a great bonus that they’re getting something else that they hadn’t thought about before, or maybe they were worrying about it. It’s a good relief for them. These feelings of surprise and relief are great to see.”

It's not just the parents who are surprised. Michael explained that kids are excited to be able to pick out their favorite backpack and enjoy using their new supplies to color while their parents shop. At the end of the trip, they gleefully pack up their backpacks and go home with their parents.

Buffalo Soliders pack backpacks in 2023.A large part of United Way’s Backpack Coalition is not just that we supply the backpacks to hubs, but the way they are packed during backpack assembly events. These events see a wide variety of people looking to give back and prepare students for success. In July 2023, on their way to the Harley-Davidson Homecoming, the Buffalo Soldiers arranged to pack backpacks for local students, supporting that nationally, the need for student success is seen and celebrated. Other local organizations and companies also participate in these backpack assembly events or help to mobilize backpacks to schools and distribution hubs. 

“It’s definitely a budget expense that as a kid you don't think about. I think it's really great that United Way has a Backpack Coalition and that we can distribute backpacks,” Michael said. “It's not something that should be burdened by the families and kids.”


You can help families prepare for the upcoming school year! We are now accepting monetary donations to buy supplies that support the Backpack Coalition. And keep your eyes open for backpack assembling events that you can join as an individual, family, or company. Supporting our local students can help us all Live United.


A student enters school for the first day of school at Browning


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