“The Backpack Project” giving hope to the economically impoverished
My name is Chaelin Jung, I’m 17 years old, I am originally from Korea but I currently live in the United States. About ten minutes from where I live, the suburbs begin to fade into neglected, graying neighborhoods. At one gas station, affluent drivers avoid the dozens of men who look (and even beg) for day jobs to feed their families. In this community, which, according to the Arizona Department of Behavioral Health Services 2009 Needs Assessment, is the fourth riskiest neighborhood for youth in the Maricopa County, four out of ten children live in extreme poverty. Four of these children go to bed hungry, and more than nine of them turn to substance abuse to cope with the harsh realities of their lives, according to the ICAN Community 2011 Needs Assessment. In some areas, gangs roam, striking fear into the local residents and recruiting youth.
In January of 2016, I began volunteering weekly at a local after-school program for disadvantaged students. My major responsibilities include tutoring students, assisting in the literacy program, and shaping positive behavior. I have interacted with hundreds, if not thousands, of youth through this program; but early on, I met one girl who would have had a much greater impact on me than I would have ever imagined a twelve-year-old could. She wasn’t the most outgoing, nor the most playful of kids. Neither was she the most popular or funny; she was simply one of those kids who are often glossed over, never receiving or attracting any attention. Quiet and introverted, she was just another face in the crowd to others. But I quickly befriended her and cherished the short time I had with her every week.
During one of our encounters, I asked Hannah about her day, and she proudly showed me the solar oven that she had constructed in school while learning about heat and light. We laughed about the gooey, messy s’mores that she was able to cook, as well as the cold, uncooked sausage that she made in the oven. Her curiosity and desire to learn were refreshing.
One week, when I went in for my regular volunteer session, I noticed Hannah’s backpack. It was torn and dirty. After speaking to her and several other kids, I learned that many of them lacked even the most basic of school supplies, such as pencils, paper, notebooks, etc. I thought to myself: “How do we as a society expect kids like Hannah to succeed when they don’t have even the most rudimentary of resources?”. We push them to the fringes of society and deprive them of resources, and then look at them as if they are just squandering their lives and living in poverty because they are too lazy to work or try. The problem didn’t even start at the lack of resources; it began at the lack of expectations.
How are students like Hannah supposed to succeed, to pursue higher education, obtain a job with wages higher than minimum wage, and advance upwards on the ladder of social mobility if society tells them that they cannot and will not succeed, simply because they come from an impoverished, poor area? This is the question that drives my activism and service.
In my sophomore year of high school, I enrolled in a new class called AP Capstone Seminar, in which I had the opportunity to research topics of interest to me. Early on in the year, I read a memoir called “Born Bright” by C. Nicole Mason about her experiences growing up in poverty: her father growing up in an violent neighborhood rampant with drugs and crime, watching her father spend time in and out of prison, and being neglected by her young mother. After reading this book, I felt obligated to research income inequality and ultimately wrote about the efficacy of increasing the minimum wage for my final independent research project.
Dr. Mason’s book opened my eyes to the sheer cruelty of poverty: without post-high school education, many individuals cannot find work other than jobs that pay minimum wage. These individuals live paycheck to paycheck, even with the help of government assistance. Then, their own children are deprived of access to higher education, and the cycle of poverty becomes almost inescapable.
Thinking of Hannah and the other children I saw with torn, dirty backpacks, I decided to start a service project at my school called “The Backpack Project”. The Backpack Project originally started as a simple endeavor: raise money through fundraisers to purchase backpacks and school supplies for underprivileged youth in my community.
But, like I realized earlier, the solution to upward mobility and success in education isn’t as simple as giving a child a backpack. Even if every child had an equitable access to resources, the fundamental problem would not go away; the attitude we have towards this demographic is the problem. Thus, several months into the service project, we officially expanded our mission to include not just donating backpacks and school supplies but also empowering young students to succeed through tutoring and mentorship.
The lack of empowerment that many of these at-risk youth face is a complex problem that traces back to family dynamics, generational poverty, governmental programs, etc. Tackling these systemic obstacles requires the collaboration of a multitude of actors: non-profit organizations, academia, government agencies and legislation. However, rather than allowing these numerous obstacles to hinder my mission, I narrowed my focus on one aspect: educational empowerment. I have always believed that collective action is the most effective, so we first started by contacting local elementary schools, where a majority of the student population come from low-income households. We coordinated tutoring programs where our school sends several students to different elementary schools every week to help kids with their homework and tutor them on subjects they struggle with. Additionally, we have attended events where members are matched with disadvantaged students to mentor them for a day. With these two methods, we have been able to impact the lives of over 200 students this past year alone.
We have also continued our original efforts to donate school supplies and backpacks. However, funding doesn’t always come easy, and raising enough money to purchase these resources has been an arduous battle. However, thanks to compassionate administrators at my school and giving individuals throughout our community, we have been able to donate backpacks full of school supplies with handwritten notes to an entire classroom of students in a disadvantaged elementary school.
This next year, I hope to involve more young adults, including students who are already in college, to provide free information sessions about the resources available for low-income students wanting to pursue higher education. I think campaigns like The Backpack Project are instrumental in impacting individuals at a local scale, but if we want significant, institutional, and long-lasting change, we must work to invoke change at the governmental level.
Whenever I talk to people about my service initiative, I tell them this: “Changing the world doesn’t just happen in far-flung third world countries. It happens in our own backyards, in our own communities. It just takes a willingness to serve and make a difference.”
The importance of education is more important in today’s world than it has ever been. Sometimes I get discouraged thinking about the immense social, economic, and even political barriers that prevent children around the world from gaining a free education. But then I remember: through one backpack, one pencil, and one child at a time, we can make a difference.
Cover cartoon credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV