The old adage “it takes a village” took on a whole new meaning when a wide array of community organizations joined forces to meet the 2,500 backpack challenge set by the Village of Wellington’s Community Services Department.
The demand for backpacks filled with school supplies was up sharply over previous years. “We were amazed to hear that more than 2,400 Wellington students will be receiving either free or reduced-cost lunch this school year, but we were up to the challenge,” said Tom Wenham, chair of the Wellington Community Foundation. “I have to say that seeing everyone come together made it a really overwhelming success.”
The Wellington Community Foundation, now in its fifth year of working with the village to deliver new backpacks and school uniforms to Wellington students in need, received a call that this year the number of students that needed assistance had risen to 2,500. Would the foundation be up to the challenge? Without hesitation, the foundation’s board jumped into action.
Knowing this was a huge undertaking with little time to prepare, the board members knew it would take the entire community coming together to get the goal accomplished. Although the foundation’s donors showed up with generous support last year during the WCF’s Red, White & Blue Jeans virtual fundraiser, the nonprofit would have to rally more donations and support to bring the goal of 2,500 backpacks to fruition.
Several organizations joined WCF on this mission, including the Christopher Aguirre Memorial Foundation, the Rotary Club of Wellington, Women of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce, My Community Pharmacy, Premier Family Health, Prominence Health Plan, Baptist Health, the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Health Specialty Center, Clinics Can Help and the Village of Wellington.
With the assistance of Wellington’s Michelle Garvey and Paulette Edwards, goals and event dates were set. The mission was to collect as many school supplies as needed to fill backpacks at the “backpack stuffing” event that took place Monday, July 19 at the Wellington Community Center. On Saturday, July 24, the village would host three separate block parties throughout Wellington. Backpacks filled with school supplies, school uniforms and other school-related items would be distributed to families that attend. The village invited families to a day of food, beverages and games to make it a fun-filled event.
Dozens of volunteers were welcomed as they stepped up to help fill the backpacks. Community Services Director Paulette Edwards said that the village was very thankful for all the supportive community partners.
“The past year’s COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for all of us, and especially our youth. In support of our school-age youth in the community, the Village of Wellington’s Community Services Department provides a number of programs and activities designed particularly for our families most in need,” Edwards said. “Once again, we have partnered with our local nonprofits to provide back-to-school backpacks for those families hardest hit financially from the on-going pandemic. We look forward to seeing the smiles on their faces when they return back to the classroom carrying their new backpacks and supplies.”
Already on board was longtime supporter RoseAnn LaBella Voils, director of the Christopher Aguirre Memorial Foundation.
“Five years ago, the Christopher Aguirre Memorial Foundation partnered with the Village of Wellington, and we were the premier sponsor of the event. The event was held in the parking lot of New Horizons Elementary School,” she said. “Our foundation’s mission is to give back to the community through educational and athletic opportunities for children and young adults.”
Named in honor of LaBella Voils’ late son, the foundation is dedicated to making a difference in Wellington.
“We are a very small Wellington family organization,” she explained. “Our main fundraiser is our annual golf tournament, which raises money for our foundation. This event is very personal to our family. Christopher, my son, passed away in 2006. He grew up and attended schools in Wellington. We want to continue his legacy by giving back and helping as many children and young adults in the community as we can.”
LaBella Voils is proud to see how the village’s back-to-school event has grown. “We are amazed to see in five years how the event grew, with not just one but all the organizations coming together, and their donations helping so many children in the community,” she said.
The Christopher Aguirre Memorial Foundation looks forward to teaming up with the Village of Wellington again next year, and LaBella Voils hopes the planning for it gets underway much earlier. “I would like to be included in the planning stages for the event, which should start in April or May, and we should know the date of the event sooner. I was disappointed that with the generous donation that we contributed, we were not in town to assist on July 24,” she said.
The Wellington Rotary was also a key supporter of this year’s back-to-school event. Not only did club members donate thousands of dollars in school supplies, they filled backpacks and attended all three block parties.
One of the event’s biggest cheerleaders was Maggie Zeller, who is actively involved in a number of different nonprofits.
“Because of my involvement with the Rotary Club of Wellington, the Wellington Community Foundation and Back to Basics, I have become incredibly aware of the basic needs of so many children in our community,” Zeller said. “I have participated for the last few years at different back-to-school events, but this one will really reach the elementary school children right in our own neighborhoods, and the children who need school supplies, backpacks and uniforms will be provided for.”
Zeller is proud that the Wellington Rotary stepped up and purchased the needed school supplies. “The Rotarian motto ‘Service Above Self’ is evident by the response from Wellington Rotarians as volunteers from stuffing backpacks, organizing uniforms, collecting children’s books and being there at all three locations on the day of the event,” she said.
Wellington Rotary President Tom Carreras added that the backpack challenge falls well in line with the club’s mission.
“The Wellington Rotary Club raises money all year using various fundraisers for purposes like this, and we were happy that we could help,” Carreras said. “It brings all of our members joy knowing we have helped kids. We especially like to know any project we are involved with is successful, and we are happy this was, too.”
Longtime Wellington Community Foundation supporter Johnny Meier, owner of My Community Pharmacy, also stepped up to help out.
“I was asked to help, and I was honored to do so,” he said. “This is a necessary endeavor to invest in the next generation, so I didn’t hesitate to help where I could.”
With such short notice, it was difficult to jump from a need of 600 backpacks last year to 2,500 backpacks this year, but Meier didn’t hesitate. He contacted Premier Family Health, and the two businesses agreed to split the necessary donation.
“I believe the youth of our community are very important to the future of our village,” Meier said. “I know that sounds obvious, but I don’t think we do enough to foster our youth and give them the proper mentorship to be successful and productive. We need to first make sure they can succeed in the classroom. That’s what this effort helps to achieve.”
After the joy and excitement of knowing that every Wellington child needing the proper school items to succeed will get it, Meier noted that My Community Pharmacy would absolutely be on board for next year’s event.
Once Premier Family Health President Tony Nelson learned about the event, he wanted to become involved.
“Premier Family Health made a commitment years ago to serve within the community and give back, specifically to the youth, who we see as the future,” Nelson said. “Through this event, we are happy to support the local youth to make sure they have the supplies for their educational needs.”
Unlike the nonprofits, which raised donations through fundraisers, Premier Family Health donated the funds to the efforts of the Wellington Community Foundation and funded thousands of dollars in backpacks.
“It was a true privilege to be a part of this event that will have a positive impact on so many students to start school with the tools they need to have a successful school year,” Nelson said. “The realization that there remains a continuous need for support for the underserved and underprivileged youth in our community is the driving force behind our participation.”
Last year, the Wellington Community Foundation heard about the wonderful back-to-school effort organized by the Women of the Wellington Chamber and reached out to see if that organization wanted to join forces in helping with the 2,500 backpack challenge. WOW Chair Jennifer Hernandez said the group would be all in. WOW committed to filling 100 backpacks, and the group’s members went above and beyond.
“The Wellington Chamber, through the Women of Wellington, hosts an annual supply drive every year because we believe in our professional community coming together to support our village, residents and students,” Hernandez said. “We also believe in the power of collaboration, so combining the efforts of our supply drive with the Wellington Community Foundation initiative impacted our community in a very powerful way.”
Along with all the school supplies, each filled backpack received a large bottle of hand sanitizer, compliments of Clinics Can Help.
“Providing the necessary supplies and equipment to not only enhance the lives of children and adults, but to protect them, is what we do at Clinics Can Help,” CEO Owen O’Neill said. “We are honored to have been a part of the backpack project within the Wellington community. Our hope is that we play a role in reducing the spread of germs when children and staff return to school very soon.”
The Wellington Community Foundation is overwhelmed with the effort and support received for the 2,500 backpack challenge and looks forward to doing it again next school year for the community’s children, added WCF Board Member Dr. Gordon Johnson.
Wellington Village Manager Jim Barnes thanked all the community partners for making the backpack challenge a reality.
“To say that the last year and a half has been challenging may be understatement,” Barnes said. “Through it all, our community partners continue to outdo themselves with their generosity and support. We are grateful for the backpack challenge initiated by the Wellington Community Foundation, rallying other community partners for support and, in the process, making a difference for so many Wellington students.”
To learn about how you can become involved in making a difference in the Wellington community, visit www.wellingtoncommunityfoundation.org.