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Norwich Free Academy students fill backpacks for needy peers

Norwich – About 20 Norwich Free Academy students returned to school early on Monday to ensure that more than 800 other students get their school year off to a good start.

The students, members of NFA's Project Outreach service club, spent 3 ½ hours Monday morning at the Sachem Campus sorting through more than 800 brightly colored new backpacks and filling them with school supplies to match the age, grade and gender of the intended recipients. Then they stacked them against the walls, ready for the dozen or so participating human services agencies to collect and distribute.

About 100 extra backpacks will be given to various Norwich schools for late-registering students whose families face financial struggles.

“It was fun being able to help people who really need it,” said Ally Toppa, an incoming sophomore from Franklin.

Project Outreach took on the Norwich Community Backpack Program three years ago after staff cuts forced Norwich Human Services to drop the program. Ten different agencies, including Norwich Human Services, collaborate on the effort, and 10 sponsors, including four banks, Rotary clubs, chambers of commerce and various agencies, provided donations.

Human Services agencies refer families to the program and provide tags for each student with age, gender and a number — no names — from each agency. Backpacks will go to students ranging from preschool to the first year of college. Younger students will find crayons, notebooks, folders, a glue stick and pencils, while other students will have binders with loose-leaf note paper, pens, rulers, a glue stick and other items. Each bag will also contain a note with the list of sponsoring donors.

Project Outreach Coordinator Jodi Vara sent an email to her students a week ago asking for volunteers to help sort and stuff the backpacks, and was pleased with the number of students willing to take a day off from their vacation to come to school.

Incoming senior Tessa-Lyn Whitaker of Norwich said she was excited to see the email and help out.

“I was bored all summer,” she said. “This is the first thing I've done all summer.”

“It's the first thing I've really cared about doing all summer,” incoming sophomore Marianna Ayala of Norwich added quickly.

Several of the students arranging backpacks for Norwich Human Services said the project gave them a chance to get to know classmates they only “sort of” knew before.

c.bessette@theday.com

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