[Episcopal News Service] Kids of all ages are enjoying a seasonal rite of passage – the blessing of the backpacks – and even getting a little help from their local Episcopal churches to go back to school.
For Jalen Henderson, 12, a member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church near downtown San Diego, attending the congregation’s second annual “Back 2 School Bash” on Aug. 17 meant receiving new paper, pencils, calculator and other school supplies, and socks, shoes, a haircut, photo, lunch and games.
“Thank you for giving me my backpack and other supplies,” Henderson wrote appreciatively during one of his last stops of the day – a crafts and activities table in the parish hall. “I think sixth grade will be very fantastic.”
Mu Aye, a Karen refugee living in San Diego, also penned her gratitude: “I really love my backpack and I got everything I need. Without you, we would have to take a lot of money out of our pockets. I see everyone’s happy including me,” according to the community college student.
At All Saints Church in River Ridge, Louisiana, Robin Peters, 55, admitted to being one of the “taller” kids and to feeling multiple blessings as the Rev. Jay Angerer prayed Aug. 18 for students, teachers, parents, the school year and backpacks.
“I needed some blessings,” said Peters, a kindergarten teacher who also attends education courses at Tulane University and who also has an adult daughter in college.
The blessings, along with an “Undie Sunday” underwear giveaway and an ice cream social, combined to make it “sacred and sweet and funny and fun” for Peters to lug her black, lime green and neon-colored polka dot backpack to the altar rail along with about eight others.
“Everybody needs God’s blessing when you head back to school,” she said during an Aug. 22 telephone interview from her Jefferson Parish home. “It is a time of change, and excitement and uncertainty.”
The All Saints’ blessings “made me feel good,” according to 6-year-old Claudia Berault, a kindergartener at the Lycée Français charter school in New Orleans. For her mom Eleanor, the ritual, while tender, is “always sort of bittersweet,” a recognition that “they grow up so fast.”
“The tradition of the blessing of the backpacks we’ve just started in the last few years has been really nice,” Berault said during an Aug. 23 telephone interview. “It’s this symbol that we’re all there to support all of them even though we’re not their direct family. It’s like that communal ‘I will’ during baptisms, that we’re all here, we’re part of your people. It’s a nice thing.”
Many congregations across the country, from Trinity Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana to Christ Church in San Antonio, Texas, customarily bless backpacks as summer concludes and students return to school. Many congregations also have formed community partnerships and paired the ritual with outreach efforts, offering clothing and personal hygiene giveaways, health exams, meals, games and other activities.
In Sarasota, Florida, the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer’s “Day of Hope” felt like Christmas in August, according to Donna Derosier.
For Derosier, 55, a single parent raising her 15-year-old son Fuller and her 11-year-old granddaughter Breanna, the day felt like an answer to prayer.
“It’s been tough,” she said during a recent telephone interview. “I worked for the state for 25 years. I had a car accident and was hospitalized for three months and they didn’t hold my job, after 25 years. Once you lose your job, everything snowballs.”
Struggling, her home in foreclosure, she was “ecstatic” to receive a call from Laura Crouse, a Redeemer parishioner and the Aug. 3 event organizer, inviting her to participate.
“I asked her how she got my name; she got it from the backpack program at a school where the children are allowed to bring snacks and food home on the weekend,” Derosier recalled.
It only got better from there.
She and her family arrived to a hearty breakfast of sausage and eggs, scrambled by Redeemer parishioner and professional chef Jeff Trefry, who was “happy to be able to use my gifts to help out.” Later, he served up a beef brisket and mashed potatoes lunch as well as a variety of snacks throughout the day.
Throughout the day, the Derosiers were shepherded through all the stations – medical, dental and eye examinations, dental fluoride treatments, a makeshift beauty salon/barber shop, and photo studio. They received school supplies, personal hygiene items, clothing and shoe gift cards, Bibles, and games and even a chance to play fireman – suiting up with fire hats, jackets and gear of local fire fighters, on hand to support day’s activities.
Crouse said the event served about 150 children, “as much as our campus can accommodate,” from fundraising and personal donations totaling about $16,500.
Olivia White, 16, Crouse’s niece, served as an ambassador for a family of five “so they were never left alone” the entire day.
Her charges, 15 and 13 year old girls, and five and six year old boys, were not all that enthusiastic about the health check-ups but perked up when they got new hairstyles and cuts, White said.
“That’s where the magic happens,” she said. “They [the volunteer stylists] make you feel so special and that’s a big thing. When you look good, you feel good. One girl was 15 and is starting high school and she was happy she got to do that.”
The photos are also a big attraction. “The pictures are great. They each get an individual photo and they also get a family portrait. It’s really cool.”
As the day progressed, friendships grew, White added. “We eat together. We end up playing together. Outside, there’s a ring toss, nail painting, there’s snow cones and popcorn. The day is amazing. They end with lunch; we send them off with a full stomach. The whole thing takes about five hours, but it goes by so fast.”
Similarly, St. Matthew’s Church in Ontario, Oregon, partners with the state Department of Human Services, schools and other organizations, who together “are able to do more than we can separately.”
St. Matthew’s fundraises and serves as the distribution center for the backpacks, in conjunction with other organizations, according to Prudence Sherman, a member who organized the Aug. 12 event.
The church’s average Sunday attendance is about 45 but this year the event served about 600 children altogether, as leftover supplies are distributed locally, she said. “We may be small in number, but we’re not cowed by our size,” said Sherman, a former teacher. “We saw a need and we got involved. We have a lot to do and we are committed to do it.”
Janie Padgett, community development coordinator for the Oregon Department of Human Services, said the area is a farming community and economically challenged but that “despite the disadvantages, we find ways to serve the kids. It’s a good example of how, when the church and government and the business community partner together, we are a lot better able to serve the needs of our communities.”
Heather Smith of St. Mark’s Church said that at least 15 congregations in the San Diego diocese have supported the Back 2 School Bash, in its second year.
Increasingly, more community members and organizations are also getting involved and she hopes that number continues to grow, so more children may be assisted, she added. About 200 children who pre-registered through the church’s afterschool tutoring, food pantry and distribution and other programs and about 25 others who had not pre-registered were assisted, she said.
“Our idea was that every kid should be excited and have what they need to go back to school and that’s not the reality for many kids,” said Smith, 34. “The idea was that we could make small changes that mean a lot to them. They face enough challenges already, and this can make a lasting impact.”
For Derosier in Sarasota, visiting the Church of the Redeemer’s “Day of Hope” was all that, and more.
“Little did I know when I got there, that it would be so extensive and well-organized,” she said. “It was unbelievable.”
And, the best takeaways?
“Now, I have got the most beautiful pictures, a really, happy, great picture of my granddaughter. I haven’t been able to buy any school pictures, I just haven’t had the money.”
And outside, as they left: “There was a plant giveaway. Now, I’ve got a tomato plant, growing in my backyard, and it has a tomato on it. It was really, really nice to spend the day that way with my son and granddaughter.”
–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.