Norwich backpack program ending unless someone steps up

Norwich - It takes a lot of work to purchase, fill and distribute more than 800 backpacks to local schoolchildren each year, but Norwich Human Services is hoping one or more agencies can take over the program the city agency is forced to cancel because of staffing cuts.

The Norwich Human Services Safety Net Team announced last week that due to staffing cuts, next month's "Back Pack it to School" distribution will be its last one.

The grant-funded program provides free new backpacks full of age-appropriate school supplies to needy Norwich students from preschool to high school age. Last year, the program served 863 Norwich children who were referred to the program by schools and local nonprofit agencies.

Now, Norwich Human Services hopes someone can keep the low-cost program going.

Janice Thompson, administrative coordinator and grants manager for Norwich Human Services, said she was only able to run the program one last time by using $5,000 left over last year. She plans to fill 721 backpacks already ordered and will give any additional backpacks to Norwich Public Schools to distribute to new needy students.

Thompson said it would take more than a dedicated volunteer to run the program. The administrator must be a federally registered nonprofit - a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization - to apply for foundation grants and accept donations. The agency must oversee the money and report back to funding agencies on how it was spent.

Thompson provided The Day a database of funding and expenses for the past three years that showed the program received 37 different grants and donations from various bank foundations, regional community service groups, individuals, school fundraisers and churches. The amounts ranged from a $5 donation to $2,000 from the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut.

The program spent $22,945 and had about $5,000 left over for this year's final program.

To save money, an agency taking over the program should have someone who can comb weekly store fliers all year for clearance sales and check Internet websites for clearance, surplus and salvage sales. Buying school supplies in August would be too costly, Thompson said.

That means the agency also needs storage space and vehicles that can haul supplies to the assembly point in August. Norwich Human Services uses the Rose City Senior Center conference room to sort and fill the backpacks.

The agency must get referrals, coded by number for confidentiality, with students' ages, grade levels and genders to match with the appropriate bags. All bags are tagged with the information.

"It's the 17th year we've been doing this," Thompson said, "so it's hard to let go of this, but I can't do it by myself."

The Norwich City Council cut two positions from human services in the 2013-14 fiscal year, and the recent retirement of longtime Director Beverly Goulet left the agency down by three positions.

Nancy Gentes, executive director of Madonna Place, said "Back Pack it to School" is too valuable to let die. Madonna Place, which provides programs for young parents, expects to receive 50 backpacks for clients this year.

Gentes said Thursday she spoke to a mother of four children in city public schools. The woman is struggling just to buy the required school uniforms, and the backpacks would be a big help.

"There's got to be some way to do something with that," Gentes said. "Maybe if people got together and problem-solved this and held a meeting with human services agencies and service clubs. Because it's a really nice program. It's a grass-roots program that really shouldn't go away. I understand with their diminished staffing, it would be difficult to keep. … It just goes to show you all the good work Norwich Human Services does around here."

c.bessette@theday.com

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