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Mom and Daughter Team Up for Operation Backpack

My daughter Madeline and I love to share concerts and culture, great food and the great outdoors. But for one week a year, we work alongside each other, lugging, lifting, hauling, counting, and packing items that will eventually fill thousands of new backpacks for children living in homeless shelters across NYC.  Of all the time we share, which is all too short, now that she’s away at college, our annual tradition of Operation BackpackTM gives me some of the moments with Maddie for which I am most grateful. [caption id="attachment_5451" align="alignright" width="300"]Mother-Daughter team Rachel and Madeline made it a yearly tradition to volunteer with Operation Backpack NYC. Mother-Daughter team Rachel and Madeline made it a yearly tradition to volunteer with Operation Backpack NYC.[/caption] Operation Backpack, Volunteers of America’s annual campaign to collect backpacks and school supplies for New York City’s homeless children, was two years old and still struggling to reach its stride when Maddie, then 11, was introduced to – no, more accurately, yanked into – this extraordinary effort. It was August 2004, and I had been working at Volunteers of America, helping OBP to gain awareness.  A large, unexpected, donation of backpacks had just arrived and needed to be sorted by the end of the day. I had already exhausted (literally) all my volunteers, staff and friends, and I was desperate for help so I called my daughter and asked her to come help and, if she could, to bring a friend. Madeline arrived with her friend, Julian, in tow. The two labored without a break and, as seriously and conscientiously as my best adult volunteers, checked every backpack to ensure not a pencil was missing.  And for the next seven years, Operation Backpack would be a part of Madeline’s own back-to-school tradition around which she would schedule her other summer activities. Maddie comes from a family who recognizes the importance of doing what we believe is “the right thing.”  I’ve worked at Volunteers of America-Greater New York for 11 years, after having been a social worker for more than 20 years.  My father was a teacher.  My mother volunteered with young children who had developmental disabilities. Her mother, my grandmother, was a longtime volunteer at Hospital for Special Surgery.  And Maddie is carrying on our legacy, as a volunteer board member of a student-run theater company, a mentor to a young girl and a coordinator of family and friends who volunteer for Operation Backpack annually.  

Inspiring Your Kids to Volunteer

operation-backpackOne of my mantras is “It’s never too early to begin a tradition of giving.” For it to really stick, though, philanthropy in whatever form it takes needs to be part of the fabric of the family. Parents need to model kindness and volunteerism. There are simple activities beginning at home that can generate rich discussions about the value of kindness, caring for others, and putting that caring into action: calling grandparents just to say hi, giving one’s seat on the bus to an elderly passenger, offering to stop by a neighbor’s apartment to play with their pet. Each year, more families like ours join the Operation Backpack family.  A number of families have told us they take their children back-to-school shopping for their own school supplies and have them select and fill a backpack for a child who might otherwise go without.  Some families hold parties or other events and ask guests to bring specific school supplies so they can hold a mini-“sort day” and fill numerous backpacks, which they then bring to our office.  

Record-Breaking Backpacks

Last year we broke records by collecting and distributing 13,500 backpacks to children living in homeless and domestic violence shelters throughout the city. We have our work cut out for us this year, as we’ve already received requests from our city’s shelters for 15,000 backpacks. We have more than 100 corporate partners who are participating again this year and new ones joining. But perhaps most meaningful are the families and children who lug, lift, haul, count, and pack along with us, so that together we can ensure children who are living in our city’s shelters will be prepared for the first day of school.  

How Your Family Can Volunteer with Operation Backpack

If your family is looking for a volunteering opportunity outside of your home this summer, Operation Backpack can be a terrific experience. It is concrete. Parents, children and their siblings can do it together. It provides teachable moments. It has nurtured some of the most memorable experiences for this mother and her daughter, and at the end of the campaign, when Maddie and I look around our sort space and see more than 13,000 backpacks filled and piled high, we always agree – it sure beats the great outdoors. The 2013 Operation Backpack drive runs July 11 - August 9. Where to drop off backpacks Help fill a backpack with school supplies Donate to Operation Backpack  

Rachel Weinstein is VP and chief development and communications officer for Volunteers of America-Greater New York, a human services nonprofit serving tens of thousands of people in need in the metro NYC area each year.

Operation BackpackTM is its signature back-to-school drive that benefits homeless children. For more information about the drive, visit For other volunteer opportunities for you and your family, visit Volunteers of America at


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