Free backpacks ease increasing costs for disadvantaged kids

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They were arranged on a long table like buffet items: one black backpack after another, each marked with two stylish strokes of white.

More than 200 schoolchildren and their parents lined up eagerly to receive the bags from volunteers at a Salvation Army worship and service center in Homewood on Thursday morning. Sponsored by Huntington Bank, the sixth annual distribution gives backpacks — equipped with a pencil, pen, notebook and lollipop — to economically disadvantaged children in Western Pennsylvania.

The Salvation Army, in partnership with several organizations, including commercial health insurer United Healthcare, will give backpacks to nearly 2,000 students in the area this back-to-school season.

“Having something presentable to put their school supplies in can be very important,” said Lt. Jonathan Lewis, the center’s pastor and administrator. “Not everyone who is in need should have to show it.”

The cost of educational equipment has risen in recent years, with the Huntington Backpack Index and the National Retail Foundation reporting this year that families will pay on average 12 percent more than they did for the last academic season. Parents of middle school children, the most expensive age bracket, can expect to pay $918 in supplies and activities for each child, Huntington found.

Online coupon business RetailMeNot conducted a study that yielded similar trends. About a quarter of the 1,000 parents surveyed, across different employment statuses and educational backgrounds, said they expected to spend more than $300 on each child for school supplies alone.

Trae Bodge, a RetailMeNot consumer savings specialist, said most parents don’t anticipate the cost of extracurricular programs such as sports teams and theater productions.

The Salvation Army’s giveaways are geared toward lower-income families, for whom the choice may be between a free backpack or a trash bag, Mr. Lewis said. The backpack affords kids dignity and a sense of belonging.

At the morning event, the line of schoolchildren and their parents snaked out the gymnasium door. Near the front, 11-year-old Shania Johnson of Forest Hills opened her bag as soon as she received it, placing a fruit punch-flavored “sucker” into her mouth.

Homewood residents Phillip Martin, 58, and Chevette Martin, 46, have been bringing their kids to receive backpacks since the distribution began. They live just five blocks away from the Salvation Army, which also functions as their church and after-school program.

The neighborhood is a school supplies desert of sorts, Mr. Martin explained. The family must travel to the Target store in East Liberty to buy even the most basic materials.

“We need businesses here,” he said, placing an arm around his 10-year-old son, Richard.

Within half an hour the room had filled and emptied, the long table left bare save for a few crumpled candy wrappers. At the door where the pastor was saying goodbye to visitors, 7-year-old Laya Goyki lingered.

She has been receiving food and clothing from the center since she was diagnosed with leukemia, her mother, Rebecca Goyki, a resident of Verona, explained.

“Every year, it gets more expensive,” she said. “My boys go through two backpacks a year … I’m 35 and I still use a backpack.”

Yanan Wang:, 412-263-1723 or on Twitter @yananw.

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