There’s still time to help local kids go back to school
By Anthony Caciopo
The most energetic student excited about his or her first day of school might not have been able to stuff a backpack faster than volunteers at Peace Memorial Church in Palos Park last Friday evening.
Talk, laughter and quick action rippled along several long tables set up for the task just inside the church entrance at 10300 W. 131st St. in Palos Park. Supplies were at the volunteers’ feet, backpacks were on the tables and the congregation members made swift work of their task to prepare school essentials for 50 kids in need at Palos Community Consolidated School District 118.
“Pencils, papers, crayons, markers,” said Pam Cornyn, president of the congregation, when asked to detail the contents of the backpacks. She wasn’t finished with her thought before the rising voices of other volunteers called out “Folders, wipes, Kleenex, calculators, glue…” and more.
“I feel great about this,” said congregation member and backpack-packer Bill Blaser.
“A lot of people cannot afford school supplies for their children, even something basic. For a lot of church members—not just the ones here filling the backpacks—bringing supplies in to fill these bags, to do something for the community for the people who aren’t as fortunate as we are, it’s a great feeling.”
Joe Spoors, chairman of the Fill the Backpacks Committee, said the project began with the idea of supplying 32 backpacks with supplies. Members of the congregation quickly claimed most of the empty backpacks and returned them to the church, filled with donated items the individual members had purchased.
“You went up to a locker (on display at the church), you picked a tag off it and you went shopping,” said Spoors.
“And when you were done shopping you found out how much you had spent,” he said with a laugh.
But many of the original 32 backpacks were returned to the church so fast that the congregation upped the effort.
“Pam (Cornyn) said ‘Why don’t you raise it to 50?’” said Spoors. “We’ve also raised $400 to $500 (in monetary donations) so far.”
After the backpack packing blitz was completed last Friday, a few of the participants stayed behind to recap the effort.
“The church has a long history of mission outreach in the community and the world,” said Pastor Jed Watson. “That’s always been a huge part of the spirituality of this congregation. We’re seeing yet another instance of that.”
Watson came to Peace Memorial three months ago from Milburn in Lake Villa, Ill. where he served for 14 years. Both are United Church of Christ.
“I’ve seen this in other congregations and its really refreshing to see this for the first time in your new calling,” he said. “You feel like you’ve made the right decision, you’re in the right place.”
A native of Racine, Wisc.—and a Bears fan, he’s quick to say—Watson spoke with The Regional seated among a handful of his congregation members who were discussing the backpacks drive. They say they intend for it to be an annual event.
“There’s a lot of tenderheartedness here and there’s a lot of passion for justice,” he said. “There’s a lot of good, loving people here.”
“We do a similar thing at Christmastime,” said Cornyn, the congregation president.
“We have a ‘giving tree’ we’ve done the last three years. We have a school from Lockport. I get seven families and we provide for the mother, father, the kids…food, as well as clothes and gifts,” she said.
Ray Kujawa, vice-president of the congregation, said “the members volunteered to do it. It wasn’t like we said ‘take this backpack and fill it.’”
Kujawa said he is four times a grandfather, with his newest grandchild born only a week ago. Two of his young granddaughters helped him fill the backpacks.
“They’re the sixth generation of this church,” he said. “My great grandfather was one of the 13 people who started this congregation in 1886.”
Laura Haase, co-chair of the Fill the Backpacks Committee, was the outreach coordinator who contacted District 118 and received a positive response.
District 118 provided guidance about what items to include in the backpacks, Haase said.
The effort was brightly and engagingly promoted to members of the congregation with a display including a few school lockers inside the church building entrance. Spoors, the chairman, has a sales and marketing background.
“When Laura and I were handing out backpacks, we had a picture frame and we took a photo of each donor in the frame. We’re going to print them and put them on one of the boards inside the church when it’s all done to thank everyone at the same time.”
And each backpack will come with something a little unique.
“Pastor Jed is going to be putting a personal note in each one,” said Spoors.
“If we keep this going over the next couple years, we can maybe venture out and contact another school district and see if they need help,” said Haase.
The backpacks will receive an official sendoff at the 9:30 a.m. worship service Aug. 11, with delivery to Dist. 118 on a date to follow. Although all the backpacks are now filled, additional donations may still be made and can be arranged by contacting the Peace Memorial Church office at (708) 448-7833.