Blooming Backpacks celebrates 10 years of helping families

Last modified: Saturday, August 09, 2014
DEERFIELD — Five years ago Tyanna Normandin received a backpack stuffed with notebooks, pens and pencils from a stranger through Blooming Backpacks, one of United Way of Franklin County’s campaigns to help struggling families in the community.

Normandin used the new backpack through the end of high school and graduated from college using the same bag.

Normandin now works for Community Action Youth Programs as a youth leadership development specialist, the same program that helped her through school and provided the backpack through Blooming Backpacks.

“You get a new backpack that’ll last. It represents someone else’s confidence in your ability to accomplish things,” said Normandin as she stood before the dozens of women who help coordinate and contribute to the Women’s Way Blooming Backpacks.

Amid a beautiful serene garden at a family home in Old Deerfield this week, United Way celebrated its 10th anniversary of Blooming Backpacks.

The organization collected 350 backpacks as of Friday and expects more to come in the next week, United Way President Linda Stacy said.

“Research shows how much an advantage kids from affluent families have. To give kids an opportunity to feel they’re starting at the same level makes them feel good about going to school,” Stacy said.

A backpack can cost between $50 and $100 in addition to other school supplies, such as notebooks, folders, binders, colored pencils and scientific calculators. And for families with more than one child, the cost of school supplies becomes more burdensome.

“Some families get a list from school and don’t have the money. Some are struggling really hard,” said Leslie Kinney, director of family and peer support at the United Arc. “We’ve been incredibly grateful that United Way Women’s Way does this. It’s a way to get resources to families.”

“Some of the kids come into the office and run to get a backpack,” said Danielle Letourneau Therrien, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters. “To see kids get excited about school and that tangible feeling that they’re ready to learn. I’m glad to see kids on a level playing field.”

United Arc, Big Brothers Big Sisters and Community Action are among several organizations that receive backpacks to distribute to families.

Blooming Backpacks began in 2005 as a fundraiser led by Women’s Way, a branch of United Way.

“We were looking for a way to reach women in Franklin County who need help,” said Carole Pennock of Deerfield, who hosts the event. “Ultimately, we thought you can serve women of Franklin County by serving the children.”

Since that time, Women’s Way has collected backpacks filled with school supplies for local children in need. Each August, the fundraiser culminates at the home of Pennock, where different social service agencies pick up backpacks.

The fundraiser has steadily grown over the years. In its first year, United Way collected 114 backpacks. Last year, it collected 410 bags.

Several local businesses have made a difference in the fundraiser, Stacy said.

Employees at Yankee Candle Co., Valley Steele Stamp and YMCA of Greenfield each year collect backpacks from staff and customers.

This year’s biggest contributor was Baystate Health and Baystate Franklin Medical Center, which donated 204 backpacks. A group of 14 staff members on the United Way team, led by co-chair Lynda Zukowski, assistant director of clinical services, ramped up efforts this year. In the past, the hospital collected an average of 50 bags.