The entire Morley Elementary School community made its 10th 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
Foreheads may have been a bit damp by the time the entire Morley student body arrived at Town Hall, but Monday morning’s heat and humidity did not in any way dampen the enthusiasm among students and staff participating in the school’s annual “Backpack Brigade.”
Delivering 336 backpacks, the Morley community proved once again why their school, which just celebrated its 90th anniversary last week, has come to have an image synonymous with community service.
West Hartford’s police and fire departments escorted the entire Morley student body of close to 300, plus teachers, staff, and dozens of parents, as they trekked more than a mile from the school to Town Hall on the steamy June morning. The brigade took a slightly different route than usual this year – heading straight down Fern Street to North Main and south across Farmington Avenue – and there were plenty of smiles when the group arrived at the air-conditioned destination where the donated backpacks were stacked on the stage to be sorted later by volunteers.
Longtime Backpack Brigade and Red Wagon Food Drive coordinator Dawn O’Connor retired from teaching at Morley last June, and this year fifth-grade Leeann Kluskiewicz took over the organizational role for the Backpack Brigade. Both of Morley’s major fundraisers are now under the umbrella of “O’Connor Community Service Projects,” in honor of the traditions O’Connor established at the school.
“We had enough backpacks so that every single student and staff member wore at least one,” Kluskiewicz said. She said that more than $3,000 was raised to purchase backpacks in addition to those that were donated by families and other benefactors, and said that the school also donated a Target gift card in the amount of $160 to go toward purchasing school supplies.
“The generosity of the Morley community is astounding,” Kluskiewicz said. “When you ask the Morley community to do something, they deliver.”
Kluskiewicz said she was honored to take over for O’Connor. “Dawn did it so beautifully, and I had such big shoes to fill, but the entire Morley community jumped right in.” She noted that there was not a single complaint about the heat Monday morning.
Speaking to the group after the backpacks had been piled onto the stage and everyone was enjoying a break in the air conditioning, with water bottles supplied by Town Hall staff, Kluskiewicz said that President John F. Kennedy was known for saying “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.”
“You guys made 336 differences today,” she told the students and staff. “Every penny helped, every crumpled, sweaty dollar I found on my desk … made a difference,” said Kluskiewicz.
In addition to donations from students, there were also 33 named benefactors and 29 other families who asked to remain anonymous in their support for the Backpack Brigade. Kluskiewicz also thanked Staples, whose management agreed to sell the school 72 backpacks for just $10 each to support the effort.
Food Pantry Coordinator Nancy Stockman said she hoped that many people along the route noticed the Morley students walking, and were inspired by their act of kindness.
“Last year we gave out 740 backpacks,” Stockman said. “We couldn’t do it without you.”
Mayor Shari Cantor, who has an extra soft spot in her heart for Morley because all four of her sons attended the school, said that she was so happy to welcome the students and is so proud of them for giving of themselves. “You bring empathy and understanding for what other people may be going through.”
That’s what Morley School is all about, Cantor said. “This is the most important thing you can do – lend a hand to help other people.”
Morley Principal Ryan Cleary told the students there are so many great lessons to be learned from doing a community event like the Backpack Brigade. He also noted that the morning’s heat and humidity made him think about Morley’s sister school in Haiti, where many boys and girls have to walk more than a mile each way every day to go to school, and the sacrifices they make just to go to school.
“Need doesn’t just exist in other countries,” Cleary said. “Need exists right in West Hartford.” While many of the Morley students may get excited at the end of the summer when they get their teacher assignments and list of school supplies to purchase, other West Hartford families get anxious and nervous about how they are going to buy what they need. “Thanks to you, some of that worry, some of that nervousness is going to disappear,” he said.
When Morley students get excited about coming back to school in the fall, Cleary said, “You can also have a warm happy feeling knowing that someone else in West Hartford is having that same feeling because of what you’ve done.”
Stockman told We-Ha.com that the number of families in need in West Hartford continues to rise, and Morley’s efforts are very much appreciated. “Morley is a tremendous community that helps us out throughout the year.”
Community Partnerships Manager Suzanne Oslander said that when the students are given backpacks in August, the families are also given gift cards to purchase school supplies, so they can choose exactly what is needed for their children’s classrooms. Anyone interested in assisting with that effort can make a monetary donation to the Town That Cares Fund by mail or through the Town of West Hartford website.
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].
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