Port Stephens charity helping students one backpack at a time

Alison, Catherine, Colleen and Stewart are ready to help any child in need.

THE film ‘Pay it Forward’ posits that perhaps we can change the world when we make a difference for just one person.

It is a principle that drives the team behind ‘The Backpack Venture’, a Port Stephens-based charity that supports school kids “one backpack at a time”.

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The initiative has its genesis with another Newcastle-based charity with which Catherine Woodbine – one of The Backpack Venture’s founding members – had been involved.

“That was an organisation focused on supporting victims of domestic violence, and one of their concepts at the start of the school year was to provide school supplies to children whose families were unable to afford them,” Catherine said.

The response from the public saw more backpacks, lunchboxes, drink bottles and stationary donated than the charity could find recipients for.

“It was great, but those backpacks were then just going to sit there at least until the next year.”

It was Catherine’s friend and former neighbour, Alison Drew, who suggested that they make use of those remaining packs when they set out on their next caravaning trip.

“I said that we should just bring some of those packs along with us, because I knew that we’d find places where there were families and kids struggling,” said Alison, who is a Constable with the Hunter region police.

It was through Alison’s police contacts through towns in rural NSW that opened those first doors, and found schools that were more than grateful for the support for their students.

“After that went so well, we just decided to keep doing it.”

Reaching out to community contacts and through social media, Catherine and Alison ran their own drive for school supplies.

As they did this they roped in Colleen Mulholland and Stewart Murrell to work with them.

“It seems like a small thing – offering a backpack,” said Stewart, “but it’s remarkable the difference that it makes to these kids.”

Stewart says that they decided to place a particular focus on towns in rural areas of NSW – places with small populations where families are more keenly feeling the cost-of-living pinch.

During the early days of the charity the deliveries were done by the team while travelling around the state, with their caravans filled with backpacks.

Most of those towns were discovered by Alison’s contacts through NSW Police, though both she and Catherine point out that there has been a process of building trust with the Department of Education which resulted in the organisation progressing from making the most of opportunities as they came to responding to requests for aid on a large scale.

“Things really changed for us following the flooding in Lismore,” Stewart said.

“That was a situation where a contact from the Department of Education actually reached out to us to ask if we could help in offering support to the affected kids.

“We’ve distributed between 1500 and 1800 packs to school kids since then.”

The Backpack Venture have, in total, provided approximately 3500 packs across the state, but Colleen said the greatest measure of the charity is in observing the impact on the students.

“If kids don’t feel like they’re equal to their peers then they don’t go to school,” she said.

“The backpacks go a long way to helping the kids just to feel normal.”

Alison said that while the gifting of a backpack doesn’t “seem like a big deal”, many of the recipients had been “carrying their things in a Woolies shopping bag”.

“Then they get these packs and they don’t necessarily treat them as precious gifts – they’re kids.

“They throw them around, they’re rough with them.

“But they’re going to school and they’re staying there.”

While the focus of The Backpack Venture team has been rural towns, they are quick to emphasise that they are more than willing to help any child in need, wherever they are.

“What works best is for parents to let their school know that they could use the help,” said Catherine.

“Then the schools can contact us and it makes accommodating everyone a lot simpler.”

The team are about to launch a new initiative of Schools Working With Schools, whereby a school seeking to engage their students in a charitable activity can connect with a small rural school and organise a fundraiser to provide supplies for them.

The Backpack Venture is highly active on social media, and you can find out more by visiting their Facebook page.

By Lindsay HALL

The team behind The Backpack Venture are hands on with all aspects of the charity.

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