The entire Morley Elementary School community made its ninth annual trek to and from West Hartford Town Hall Tuesday, delivering backpacks that will be given to students in need before the next school year.
By Ronni Newton
Morley School’s 286 students set off Wednesday morning with backpacks slung over their backs, and for the ninth year in a row proved why the school’s image has become synonymous with community service.
A total of 337 backpacks were delivered as part of the 2017 Backpack Brigade.
Accompanied by approximately 30 teachers and staff members, as well as dozens of parents – and escorted by the West Hartford Police and Fire departments – the Morley community was all smiles as they made the 1.2 mile (each way) trek down Farmington Avenue, through Blue Back Square, to the Town Hall auditorium where donated backpacks were stacked on tables to be sorted by volunteers.
There are a few less students in the school this year, but the number of donated backpacks was greater this year. “Enrollment is down, but generosity is up,” Principal Ryan Cleary said as he walked alongside the students.
The Backpack Brigade was originally scheduled for Tuesday morning, but was postponed for a day because Tuesday was in the 90s and humid.
“With the excessive heat and air quality alert it just made sense, especially for the little guys,” Cleary said about the postponement to what was originally set as the rain date. The town, police, and fire departments were “awesome” in being able to accommodate the change, he said.
It made Wednesday more exciting all around – because it was also “crazy hair” and “crazy hat” day, and some students sported unusually-colored or styled hair and headwear as they made the trek through town.
Second grade teacher Dawn O’Connor has coordinated the Backpack Brigade, as well as the 22-year-old Red Wagon Food Drive effort, since they both began. She said that when the Backpack Brigade first started the backpacks were filled with school supplies, but Social Services now gives out gift cards instead so that students can purchase the supplies they really need once school begins.
In addition to the 337 backpacks, O’Connor said that more than $4,000 was raised by the Morley community to fund the purchase of larger backpacks as well as the gift cards for school supplies. She said she decided to part with her classroom Beanie Baby collection to incentivize donations, and said she gave away close to 200 of the small stuffed critters.
For O’Connor, this year’s Backpack Brigade was bittersweet as well. After 36 years teaching in West Hartford, 30 of those at Morley, she is retiring.
“Off to new adventures,” O’Connor said of her move to Venice, FL, where she will live near her older son.
“In August this auditorium will be transformed. It will become a backpack shop,” said Nancy Stockman, coordinator of the West Hartford Food Pantry, who thanked the Morley community for their donations.
Stockman said that more than 650 backpacks and gift cards were given out last year, and the 337 backpacks donated by Morley make a huge impact.
Student Council President Jacob Boyer told the crowd gathered in the Town Hall Auditorium that the students raised $1,062.93 through their own fundraisers – spirit days and other activities. Combined with almost $200 raised at the dunk tank at the Morley picnic, donations from the PTO and others, a total of $4,083 had been raised, Jacob said.
Student Ruth Hatch, who had the honor of serving as principal for the day, spoke of how the giving Morley community has changed her since she arrived in fourth grade. Morley is all about “teaching kids like me to be a good citizen,” she said, and urged her fellow students to remember what that good feeling about being part of a great community feels like.
“For nine years you have improved the life of West Hartford,” Mayor Shari Cantor told the Morley students.
Cantor’s four sons went to Morley, and she is a former PTO president and was a room parent for 14 years. She said she that Morley imbues a sense of community and giving that lasts forever.
“We all rise to the occasion when we give a little of ourselves,” Cantor told the students.
“Our identity is community,” Cleary said. He made sure to thank the police and fire department for escorting the brigade. They are also part of what makes West Hartford such a great community, he said.
As Cleary told the audience of O’Connor’s plans to retire – something not everyone knew – an audible “No!!” spread through the crowd.
“Mrs. O’Connor is literally the face of the Morley community,” Cleary said.
What O’Connor has brought to the community – the Red Wagon Brigade and the Backpack Brigade, will continue, Cleary said, but will have something added to their descriptions.
As Cleary spoke, a new banner – which reads “O’Connor Community Service Projects” – was unveiled. “This is to honor the work that Mrs. O’Connor has established at Morley School,” Cleary said.
O’Connor, clearly overwhelmed with emotion, also spoke to the crowd.
“You always have something to give … Morley is just the best school,” she said. She said it’s not just the big things, like donating food or backpacks, but even little things like inviting another student to sit on a buddy bench.
O’Connor said she had always joked that she would have to be taken out of the school “in a little red wagon.” That’s not quite what happened, but PTO Co-Presidents Kristin Cianflone and Liz Hanawalt did have a red wagon surprise.
The PTO donated a shiny new red wagon in O’Connor’s name, and it will “permanently lead the Red Wagon Food Drive,” Cianflone said.
“We rely on the community for support, in order to assist those in need,” Community Partnerships Manager Suzanne Oslander said as the backpacks were being sorted after the students headed back to Morley.
And there is a lot of need, in every school, every zip code, she said. Morley students will be among those who come to the auditorium in August to be on the receiving end of a donation.
“With events like this you see the giving spirit. For us to remember there is a lot of good in this world,” Oslander said.
“It’s like when you drop a pebble in water and you see the ripple go out,” she said. You see the smiles today, but beyond that it inspires others to do good as well, to donate, to perform other acts of kindness, said Oslander.
Families that are in need of donated backpacks and school supplies should register with Social Services by calling Oslander at 860-561-7580 or emailing her at [email protected].
Additional backpacks as well as financial donations to the Town That Cares Fund are also needed, and information about how to donate can be found on the Town of West Hartford website.
Like what you see here? Click here to subscribe to We-Ha’s newsletter so you’ll always be in the know about what’s happening in West Hartford!