A dozen eighth grade girls crammed into a cramped office lined with shelves of backpacks, toys, and school supplies Friday afternoon to stuff the school bags for children in need.
Called “The Giving Back Girls,” the young ladies were preparing for the “Fill That Bus” event held Sunday at the Southington Wal-Mart where they attempted to pack a school bus to capacity with the filled backpacks.
The Southington Fire Department will pick up the backpacks on Aug.21 and take them to the Southington Board of Education where representatives from the Giving Back Girls will distribute them on Aug. 22 and Aug. 23. Surplus backpacks will be given to Social Services where they will be available for continued pick-up throughout the school year.
The backpacks and other goods for the project were donated, in part, by SNET, the Southington Rotary Club and other community organizations, and local citizens.
Tricia Gibney, Project Director for the Arc of Southington, an advocacy organization for the developmentally disabled, said the girls have collected more than 1,000 backpacks to fill. The Arc of Southington mentors the Giving Back Girls.
Gibney’s daughter Erin, 13, founded the Giving Back Girls in 2010 because she wanted to combine her love of baking with the chance to serve her community. Gradually, Erin and the other girls she enlisted to join her expanded their nascent passion for philanthropy from holding bake sales to other outlets of charitable work.
The girls inherited their latest project from Smart Start, a program run by Southington Community Services, which has conducted the backpack giveaway in the past. Most of the Giving Back Girls also work with Smart Start.
Even though the group consists of middle school students, the Giving Back Girls display a striking level of sophistication in their efforts. Backpacks are not randomly stuffed with handfuls of donated items. Instead, contributions are divided by age and gender-appropriateness. The girls then fill the bags accordingly, with bags organized into separate piles designated by grade levels and gender.
The Giving Back Girls have also devised a creative system to protect the anonymity of backpack recipients who may wish to avoid a perceived stigma associated with taking charity. Only four members of the group, including Erin and her twin sister Emily, actually handout the backpacks, and these four will continue to do so exclusively until they graduate. Each is required to pledge to a formal “Confidentiality Code” that stipulates they will not reveal any information about who accepts the backpacks.
The Giving Back Girls are employing savvy means to get the word out about their activities on Sunday. Besides enlisting local press, Tricia, Erin, and Emily will appear on Channel 3 Saturday morning to promote “Fill That Bus.” The group has recruited Southington Schools Superintendent Dr. Joseph Erardy to send out a phone-blast informing every student’s family in the district about the event.
Tricia and Erin see the Giving Back Girls as an organization that will live on after their own participation has ceased. They want to bring new young women into the fold every year to replace those who will eventually depart to attend college or become busy with other pursuits and also to grow the scope of the group’s endeavors.
For now, though, mother and daughter are committed to their shared good works. Tricia said, “It’s just so rewarding to be a part of this.”
And for Erin, the pay-off for all the sorting, stuffing, and loading-- not to mention “so many hours cleaning the office”-- comes in August when she gets to hand over the backpacks and other goodies to eager children. “I’m so excited to see the kids’ faces,” she beams.
The backpacks and other items will be dispersed on Wednesday, Aug. 22, from 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. and Thursday, Aug. 23, from 9 a.m. and noon at the Southington School Board office.