Bernice Bush has been working the Backpack Roundup event in Fort Wayne so long that she doesn’t even have to stop and think about her favorite part of the program.

“It’s the smiles on the children’s faces,” she said while flashing a big smile of her own. “That’s priceless.”

As director of Lifeline’s Youth & Family Services, Bush knows just how critical the school supply-filled knapsacks that they donate are for families in need. And for almost 15 years, she’s been right there, helping families and school-age children get the school supplies they require at no cost to them.

On July 30, dozens of families from the Brookmill Court housing complex, 2751 Millbrook Drive, gathered to receive this year’s gift. Bush said the backpack distribution event usually is a much more extravagant affair with big crowds, rides and carnival games, but, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the event had to be scaled down.

“This is pared way back,” Bush noted, as the event went on from about noon to 3 p.m., “but we still wanted to make sure the kids got the supplies they needed.”

Children ages 3 to 18 (prekindergarten through 12th grade) receive the totes filled with school supplies, each child getting items that are appropriate for their grade level, Bush said.

For instance, elementary students might receive crayons and construction paper, while a high schooler could get a backpack filled with enough notebooks for all their different subjects, as well as a scientific calculator.

Bush estimated the value of each bag at roughly $30 to $75.

“The goal,” Bush noted, “is to fill the backpack with most of what each child needs to alleviate that cost to the family.

“This is so the parents don’t have to make a choice between buying school supplies or, perhaps, buying food or medicine.”

And this year, to help keep kids safe during the pandemic, Lifeline also included hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and facial tissues in the bags.

Bush said nearly 400 backpacks would be distributed in total — about 200 at the Brookmill Court apartments — a site run by the Fort Wayne Housing Authority — and another 180 or so at the Euell A. Wilson Community Center on Oxford Street.

About 15 volunteers help fill the backpacks with the supplies, although some generous donors actually go out with a child’s specific list, and buy all the items themselves, purchasing a new backpack, and then filling it with everything on the youth’s supply list.

“We got 300 backpacks already filled (from volunteers),” Bush said proudly, “and we bought the supplies to fill 100 more.”

In a recent study, the National Retail Foundation found that American families will spend about $131 on school supplies for the upcoming school year.

This year, Lifeline also donated boxes of nonperishable food items to each family that was receiving the backpacks as an extra bit of help.

Lifeline Youth & Family Services was founded in 1968 when a group of local business leaders felt compelled to do something to help kids in trouble who needed a safe and loving home. The group continues to help youngsters and families in need through in-home therapy, counseling, preventative education and residential care.

“We are so thrilled to have the opportunity to once again provide school supplies and other necessary items for families,” Bush explained. “Thanks to the generosity of hundreds of donors and volunteers, the event will be another successful kickoff to the school year while providing this community with information from local service organizations.”

Sponsors of the event included Northwest Bank, U.S. Savings Bank, New Covenant Worship Center, Heaven 2 Earth Baptist Church, The Chapel, Fellowship Missionary Church, A Spoonful of Sugar and the Fort Wayne Housing Authority.

Kent Castleman, chief development officer for Lifeline, noted that the entire goal of the program is to make sure local families can focus on what their children need most — a good education.

“One of the goals of our organization is to remove barriers so people can receive the help they need,” Castleman said. “We don’t want families to have to worry about school supplies; we want them to be able to concentrate on helping their children get an education.”

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