By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
Cristy Ely gestured at tables filled with pencils and pens, paper and notebooks, scissors and glue, as far as the eye could see. “We’re prepared for about 600 kids this year,” she said. “The first year was really just like, wow, but now we kind of know what to expect.”
Ms. Ely was standing in the fellowship of Rising Fawn Church of God, now set up in assembly-line patterns as the church revs up for Project Backpack, its annual school supply giveaway, which this year will begin at 9 a.m. on Saturday and continue until noon, or until supplies are exhausted.
Courtesy of the congregation, students from pre-K to high school seniors can pick up their backpacks stocked with notebooks and ballpoints free of charge. Volunteers are even now packing about 400 backpacks, leaving some left to be custom-filled as needed.
“This front table will be stacked up to about here with prepacked bags,” said Cristy Ely. “There’ll be kindergarten and first grade and second grade, and we’ll have a packing team that’ll stay back here to pack extra as supply goes down. Then we have runners.”
Several tables contain only backpacks, big backpacks and little backpacks, pink backpacks and black backpacks, girly-girl backpacks and macho-guy backpacks. “They’re separated into boy-girl, and they’re also separated into older kids and younger kids,” said Ms. Ely. “A fifth-grader is not going to want to carry a Dora book bag.”
She explained that Davis, Dade Elementary and Dade Middle schools compile lists of supplies needed by students, and the church uses those lists in packing the packs. Dade High does not have a list but volunteers still have a pretty good idea of what high school students need.
“The lower grades are typically more like glue, scissors, crayons, some paper, and then the older they get, it tends to be more paper-pencil and less other stuff,” said Ms. Ely. “We have pencils, pens, highlighters, index cards. We’ll usually throw in some colored pencils because we know like in math, whenever they’re graphing and stuff, sometimes they have to color in there.”
She said despite Project Backpack’s name, she knows some middle- and high-schoolers prefer to keep supplies in their lockers between classes and give the backpack thing a miss. “They’re honest,” she said. “We ask them as they’re registering if they need backpacks, if they’re older kids, and some of them say no.” In that case, she said, volunteers put the supplies in grocery bags and save the backpacks for others.
And Project Backpack may entail more than supplies: Last year, about 300 students took advantage of the Church of God’s offer of free haircuts. This year, the stylist team has been expanded. “The first couple of years we had four and kids were leaving because there was a backup on haircuts,” said Ms. Ely. “But now we have seven or eight hairdressers.”
Rising Fawn Church of God started the backpack project in July 2009, just four months after its present pastor, Chris Hagler, took over. Having no idea what to expect, the congregation bought and packed about 350 backpacks – then watched in amazement at how quickly they disappeared as families came from as far away as South Pittsburg, Tenn., and Fort Payne, Ala., to claim them. “We knew there was a need but we were surprised,” she said.
Each year since then, said Ms. Ely, the demand has done nothing but grown. “Parents have either lost jobs or just expenses are getting greater,” she said. “School supplies are expensive and it’s a burden on parents at the beginning of the school year.”
For purposes of equalization funding, Georgia now considers Dade among the wealthier of its counties, but Ms. Ely, who until this year taught second grade at Dade Elementary, says her experience taught otherwise. “Oh, there’s need. There’s a lot of need,” she said. “We have a lot of needy children who don’t necessarily have what they need.”
In year two, volunteers gave away 400 backpacks, last year 500 – and this year, said Ms. Ely, interest has already been keen, which is one reason the church decided to keep the event on the last weekend of July though with the new, shortened calendar Dade students aren’t due back in class for another month. “We wanted to keep it consistent because it’s kind of gotten to be known now,” she said. “Brother Chris has been getting phone calls for a month.”
As reported in 2010, with this demonstrated need, Rising Fawn Church of God has made filling those backpacks the focal point of its mission. “It’s everybody in the church,” said Ms. Ely. “Some people would just rather give donations. I’m designated as one of the shoppers, so as I’m out and about, as I see stuff on sale I’ll grab it, and we just have a backpack project fund that we’ll supply all year long.”
Ms. Ely, a shopper so savvy she uses “clearance” as a verb, says if she looks sharp she can get backpacks for an average of $5 a pop. “Even if we don’t get them clearanced, after the school year starts, pretty much all your stores, Walmart, Walgreen’s, everywhere runs back-to-school sales, and we try to hit those,” she said. Next year’s shopping begins July 29, she said, the next day after this year’s giveaway.
Finally, an interesting point about Project Backpack is that as it has grown, so has Rising Fawn Church of God. Ms. Ely, who grew up in the church, said when she was a child typical attendance was somewhere in the 30s. “We’re probably averaging around 100 on Sunday mornings now,” she said. “Last Sunday I think it was 117.”
The church’s choir chairs had to be removed, she said, to make room for the congregation, Chris Hagler gave up his job teaching school to pastor full-time, and three weeks ago, church leaders broke ground on land they bought across from Hanna Cemetery to build a new church.
But Ms. Ely said it’s not necessarily families from the backpack project that have swelled her church’s congregation. “I think it’s just that people are seeing that the church is investing in the community,” she said. “People want to be a part of that.”