ENGLEWOOD — Faculty, students and staff at the Academy of St. Benedict received a very special visit from new friends bearing some necessary gifts Thursday.
Enchanted Backpack, a local nonprofit created to provide schools in underserved areas with vital resources, surprised students with $48,000 of toys, clothes and supplies.
Founded by former Alberto-Culver executive chairman Carol Lavin Bernick in 2016, the nonprofit made The Academy of St. Benedict, 6020 S. Laflin St., the 80th Chicago-area school the organization it’s helped so far.
Bernick, inspired by her schoolteacher daughter, wanted to help educators who are usually forced to spend money they don’t have on students lacking basic needs.
The organization made its official debut last year, traveling to 50 schools in the city and suburbs with vans packed with school supplies.
“This year we’re doing 50 more,” said executive director Hillary Fash. “The name is a bit of a misnomer because we’re not giving away actual backpacks. The vans are the backpacks that bring the supplies.”
The supplies range from pencils, crayons, paper and books, to personal hygiene products, coats and scarves. To qualify for help, 50 percent of a school’s student body must qualify for free or reduced lunch, and all donations received by Enchanted Backpack go directly to the schools.
Fash said that, so far, 1,200 other schools qualify for support.
We’re still learning and growing and have found some incredible partner schools,” said Fash. “When we met with Benedict two months ago, I didn’t want to leave.”
Principal Patricia Murphy praised her assistant principal, Jennifer Farrand, for making the visit from Enchanted Backpack possible.
“She wrote the grant and did the legwork to make it happen,” said Murphy. “We are the only Catholic or private school left in Englewood, and 100 percent of our students receive a free or reduced lunch.”
Usually the school depends on the generosity of other local schools that donate items, since they’re the only Catholic school without a parish. That lends itself to a certain kind of unpredictability, as they never know what they’re receiving or when.
“Enchanted Backpack’s donation allows us to plan for the rest of this year and the next year, so we can control the situation,” said Murphy.
For Maggie Writt, who teaches sixth, seventh and eighth graders at the school, it’s a blessing.
“To not have a question of whether or not I’m going to have the supplies I need so that my kids get the education they deserve is huge,” said Writt, who has taught at the Academy of St. Benedict for four years. “I’m a reading teacher, so I spend a lot money on books, and I can spend that money on books instead of pencils and paper and all the other things that are absolutely vital.”
“Our school has grown tremendously,” said eighth-grader Isis Gayden-Barnes, who has attended the school since third grade. “This has given us an opportunity to learn more without worrying about whether we have pencils. We can be focused. I’m grateful that Enchanted Backpack came because we didn’t have a lot of stuff. We’ve gotten bits and pieces before but not all the supplies as a whole.”
While Gayden-Barnes was excited about all the gifts, the one she really loved was the blue jacket she cradled in her hands while rummaging through the pile of donations with her classmates.
Tacarl Jackson, another eighth-grader, was also moved by the gesture.
“It’s good to know that people actually care and help kids get stuff,” said Jackson.
“These kids have taught me more about myself, and the world, and what it means to be a good person, and every day I’m here I thank God for the joy of young people, said Writt.
“I work with 66 kids who are going to change the world.”
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