Giving back

United Way of Bucks County celebrated its most successful Backpack-A-Thon with 2,845 bags of school supplies for kids in need

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

It’s always a sunny day at Sesame Place, but things were even brighter last Thursday when 180 volunteers of all ages came together for a common cause. Earlier this month, United Way of Bucks County hosted its annual Stuff the Bus initiative to collect school supplies for local kids, and these efforts culminated in the day-long Backpack-A-Thon on Aug. 24. During the event, the supplies were organized to be sent to kids in need to help them start the school year feeling confident and prepared.

Helping hands: Throughout the Backpack-A-Thon event, 180 volunteers stuffed 2,845 backpacks with necessary school supplies. Stuff the Bus project coordinator Danielle Bush (left center) and Wells Fargo Region Bank President Brian Formisano (right center) held a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of a Wells Fargo stagecoach to officially kick off the event. SAMANTHA BAMBINO TIMES PHOTO

Though the first shift of volunteers wasn’t scheduled to start until 9 a.m., many were present and already stuffing backpacks by 8:30. Held in the Big Bird Training Room in Sesame Place’s HR Building, pictures of Elmo and friends lined the walls to help gear everybody up for this high-energy day, which at its heart is all about the children.

Some 16 percent of kids in Bucks County are unable to have their basic needs met, including food and shelter. For these families, school supplies are simply out of the question, and the kids are left feeling unprepared and self-conscious on the first day of school. But this fall, almost 2,900 kids throughout the county won’t have to experience this, and will enter the classroom with everything they need to be successful.

According to United Way of Bucks County CEO Marissa Christie, this year’s Stuff the Bus received the largest response to date. Some 2,845 backpacks were stuffed throughout the day, compared to last year’s total of approximately 2,200. When the initiative began in 2011, it served 300 children, so Christie is thrilled at how community support has grown in a few short years.

“This is next level,” she said.

To ensure the event remained organized and all necessary supplies were put into each backpack, everything was set up in an assembly line fashion. One large table held elementary-related items such as crayons and wide-ruled notebooks while another had college-ruled books for high school students. Generic supplies for all students such as erasers and rulers were placed on a third table in the center. The volunteers would grab a backpack, make their way down the appropriate table of supplies, and finally place the filled bag in a neat pile at the end. To keep up with the demand, each shift needed to pack more than 700 bags.

Schoolbag success: Each backpack was personalized to suit an elementary or high school student. SAMANTHA BAMBINO / TIMES PHOTO

Though there were mountains of supplies, the volunteers took extra care to personalize each bag. If they grabbed a princess backpack, a pink notebook was placed inside rather than a Spiderman one. Christie explained how each backpack is already matched with a student so after the event, it can be immediately delivered to them. Some go directly to the family while others go through a social worker or school district.

More than 80 of the volunteers donned bright red T-shirts to represent their affiliation with the lead sponsor Wells Fargo. According to Brian Formisano, Region Bank president, this is the company’s second year supporting United Way’s Stuff the Bus project. When he moved to the area a little over two years ago, he immediately began assessing the needs of the community, and what he saw was eye-opening.

“A lot of people look at Bucks County as an affluent society, but that’s not the case,” Formisano said.

After witnessing homelessness in the communities and a large number of children not having their basic needs met, he linked up with several local organizations, including United Way, to increase the bank’s involvement in giving back.

“It feels great to be with a company that is so committed to the community,” he said.

During the Stuff the Bus collection phase, 60 Wells Fargo branches both in Bucks County and its surrounding areas supported the effort by hosting drives and having drop-off boxes at their locations. Formisano couldn’t express enough pride in his staff for helping to significantly increase the number of children served.

“This is the highlight of my week,” he said.

Formisano, along with Christie and Stuff the Bus project coordinator Danielle Bush, gathered outside in front of a Wells Fargo stagecoach for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to kick off the day. Afterward, the volunteers trickled back inside to continue putting as much love as Elmo would into each and every backpack. ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com