Sheriff’s office, partners to hand out 2,000 filled backpacks to schoolchildren

  • Hampden County Sheriff Nicholas Cocchi speaks at a press conference for the Holyoke Safe Neighborhood Initiative as initiative director Edward Caisse, state Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse watch. STAFF PHOTO/MICHAEL CONNORS

  • A backpack with its contents on display for the Holyoke Safe Neighborhood Initiative. STAFF PHOTO/MICHAEL CONNORS

Staff Writer
Published: 8/20/2020 1:16:25 PM

LUDLOW — As students across Holyoke prepare for a new school year, the Holyoke Safe Neighborhood Initiative will be handing out 2,000 backpacks filled with supplies to the city’s schoolchildren.

Unable to distribute the supplies at its traditional back-to-school event due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Holyoke Safe Neighborhood Initiative will instead hold 11 individual “grab-and-go” events at schools across Holyoke beginning this week and lasting until school begins in September. Dates and times for those events will be communicated to families by the individual schools as they are finalized, said Edward Caisse of the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, the director of the Holyoke Safe Neighborhood Initiative, which is overseen by the sheriff’s department.

“This is important to us. We have $30,000 worth of school supplies going into these 2,000 backpacks,” Caisse said during a press conference Wednesday at the Hampden County Jail. “We couldn’t do that without all of the agency partners, without all the donors and the financial support we get from the business community.”

On a table in front of Caisse was a blue backpack with its contents on display, including a pencil box filled with erasers, glue sticks and pencils; crayons; notebooks, folders; colored pencils; a guide to community resources; a face mask; and other supplies. This is the ninth year the initiative is doing a back-to-school event, he said.

Families may be surprised to see a copy of the New Testament in the backpacks this year. Caisse said some of the agencies the Holyoke Safe Neighborhood Initiative partners with are churches, and that in previous years, a tent was set up at the distribution event at which 1,000 Bibles were given away to people who wanted them. 

Caisse said he made the decision to put the Bibles in each backpack this year partly due to the previous success of the Bible tent. The Bibles are for the families of the schoolchildren, just as the guide to community resources is.

“It’s important for us to get resources into the hands of families to try to help them get to better places,” Caisse said.

Most of the supplies in the backpacks were donated, Caisse said, but some of the contents needed to be purchased. According to its website, the Safe Neighborhood Initiative is a partnership between law enforcement and other community and business organizations.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Hampden County Sheriff Nicholas Cocchi thanked Caisse and the Safe Neighborhood Initiative for continuing their work during COVID-19.

“If we have to get creative in how we’re going to distribute the backpacks and the supplies to our students, then that’s what we’re going to do,” Cocchi said.

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse said that even though the larger event won’t be happening this year, he believes the backpack program will still have a positive impact.

He thanked private sector businesses for contributing and “making sure that kids in Holyoke, the most vulnerable kids in this region, have the resources they need so we can level the playing field.”

State Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, said that the supplies in the backpacks are “absolutely critical.”

“This right here, these books, these backpacks, this education, this is the key — this is the foundation to everything,” Velis said. “If you have an educated population … anything is possible.”

At the event, Caisse honored Morse and other community and business leaders with plaques for their support. One of these honorees was Aubrey Conquergood, executive director of Cradles to Crayons Boston, an organization working to provide children with everyday essentials to combat childhood poverty. She said her organization provided the 2,000 backpacks for this program.

“Whether or not they’re in school (or) they’re learning from home, the need is still there,” Conquergood said.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com. 
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