At 9 a.m. on Wednesday, June 5, the entirety of Morley Elementary School’s student body marched from the school, through Blue Back Square, and all the way to West Hartford Town Hall for their annual Backpack Brigade.
By Lauren Cohen. Photos by Zoe Pierce and Ronni Newton
The trail of students, parents, and teachers seemed to never end as the Morley Backpack Brigade snaked its way through Blue Back Square, flanked by West Hartford police and fire departments on Wednesday morning.
Each Morley student proudly sported a brand new backpack as they made the 1.2-mile trek from their school, ready to add their backpack to the donation pile growing inside of the Town Hall auditorium. Some students even held two backpacks, and parents and teachers were piled up with extras.
This year, Morley was able to collect more than 370 backpacks, surpassing last year’s 331 bags. The backpacks collected by Morley families and other West Hartford residents will be donated to West Hartford Social Services’ Town That Cares Fund as a part of their back-to-school initiative.
The backpacks that are collected, plus more that are purchased with donated funds, will be given out to West Hartford children in need before the 2019-2020 school year begins.
The Backpack Brigade, now in its 10th year, is an excellent way to reinforce the spirit of generosity that is part of the Morley School culture, and be a part of an act of kindness before the school year ends. This sentiment was expressed by each speaker that met with the students in Town Hall after their journey.
The first speaker of the morning was Nancy Stockman, coordinator of the West Hartford Food Pantry that operates under the Town That Cares Fund. Addressing the students, she said that she was “so happy and so proud of you for ending your school year with this beautiful act of kindness. So thank you.”
She said that last year more than 660 children were given backpacks and gift cards for school supplies from the Back to School Program. “You came forward, and year after year you continue to help us,” she told the students.
Stockman also thanked the parents, administration, and the fire and police departments that kept the kids safe on their trek, for making the Brigade possible, and said she hoped that “everyone who sees you today is inspired and does something kind”.
Fifth grade teacher Leann Kluskiewicz, who took over last year as coordinator of the Brigade after founder Dawn O’Connor retired in 2017, inspired the crowd with a quote from President Obama: “A change is brought about because ordinary people do extraordinary things.” She exclaimed, “Today YOU, all of you, did 370 extraordinary things,” motioning to the 370 backpacks piled up on tables all around the room.
She thanked the 28 “Backpack Brigade Benefactors” for their generosity in matching gifts to raise money. Children held up signs thanking the benefactors.
Kluskiewicz also thanked the many anonymous donors and those who brought in backpacks, as well as HelpSystems, that donated $1000 to buy backpacks, and the Morley PTO that raised $500 from box top collections and other fundraisers. “We are really, really grateful,” she said.
Kluskiewicz said that almost every day she’d have kids “appear at her door,” bringing her money they raised, ranging from crumpled bills to baggies of coins, and even lemonade stand earnings.
Elizabeth Wallack’s third grade classes went “above and beyond,” collecting cans from their neighbors and returning them for money. She recognized two students in particular – Will McDermott and Owen Dube, who spearheaded the can collection – telling them “you really, really made a difference, and I am so proud of you.”
Kluskiewicz also gave a special round of applause to her own fifth-grade class, saying that “they have truly been my partners in this process.” Kluskiewicz’s acknowledgements proved loudly and clearly that this endeavor really was one of those “it takes a village” projects, something that Mayor Shari Cantor later touched on.
“No matter how much or how little you gave, you played an important role today in making sure that students just like you have a bag to carry stuff to school in every day, and I am so grateful to work with students like you who care about their community so much, so thank you,” Kluskiewicz said.
Cantor, whose four sons all attended Morley, never misses a chance to speak to the students at the Backpack Brigade or the Red Wagon Food Drive in the fall. She noted “that good feeling that you have when you do something for someone else,” and said that she and all of the students crowded on the floor of the auditorium Wednesday morning were feeling those emotions together.
Cantor highlighted the work that the students did “for children that don’t have that luxury or ability to fill a backpack and be ready for school on the first day,” and encouraged them to remember this joyful feeling not on the good days, but on days where they “might need a little help” or support from the community.
Cantor said she wanted them to know “that there are people that are going to feel really good helping you … that’s what a community is all about.”
Morley principal Ryan Cleary reiterated thank-yous and the fact that “even though we do it every year,” the Backpack Brigade is “really really special every single time.”
Addressing the student, Cleary said, “One of the reasons why I love being the principal of Morley School so much is because our community is so generous.”
He expressed how lucky he feels to be in school with them every day, and to get to see their generosity. “I see your generosity in the classroom, I see it in the hallways, I see it on the playground at recess time. It’s a special thing to be so generous, but today’s a little bit different,” he noted.
Cleary explained that “real generosity is doing something nice for somebody and they don’t even know it. It’s almost like a secret.” That’s what the kids did today, an act of kindness for complete strangers, he said.
“That’s the real hallmark of our Morley community, making sure that we’re doing everything we can to make our community and the greater West Hartford community a better place,” said Cleary.
To end the morning, Cleary brought the message close to home, talking about Morley’s fifth-graders and this “time of year that we feel a lot of feelings.” He urged students to “focus on the feelings like the ones you have today,” saying that the “joy you have for what you did today is contagious.”
That contagious joy was evident as the students smiled and waved at passersby on their journey from Morley to Town Hall.
Morley students today showed strangers “what it meant to do something good,” and inspired them do an act of kindness in the future, Cleary said.
“I just love seeing these kids, and seeing their genuine happiness in doing this,” Stockman told We-Ha.com after the event. She said that she expects “about the same number, if not more, backpacks will be given out in August.”
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 Community Partnerships Coordinator Suzanne Oslander at 860-561-7580 or emailing her at [email protected].
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