In 2006 Maureen Brull of Cornell Benefit Services saw her 6-year-old granddaughter off to her first day of elementary school. To Brull's surprise, her granddaughter returned troubled.
"She told me, 'Grandma, there's a little girl that comes to school, and she has no backpack,'" Brull said. "The girl brought her things in a grocery bag."
Brull decided to anonymously provide the child with a backpack filled with supplies for the new school year. But the incident haunted her.
"We think about kids in need at Christmastime, but that first day of school is so traumatic ... kids are worried about how their clothes and hair look, but some can't even afford a backpack," Brull said.
So Brull decided to team up with Bill Alberta of the Cornell Elves, a program that sponsors needy families around the winter holidays. At Alberta's suggestion, Brull enlisted the "elves" to determine how many children at the schools they represented needed supplies.
"In addition to being full-time employees, they were on board to do this too," she said. "It just took off from there."
In 2007 the Cornell Elves Backpack Program gave 287 backpacks to 12 local elementary schools. Since then, the program has expanded; this year the program collected 449 backpacks that were distributed to 18 schools.
The strength of the program largely comes from the sense of community among volunteers, says Brull, who sends out e-mails each June to previous participants, asking them to keep the Backpack Elves in mind when they're buying school supplies for their own children. The elf leaders on campus follow up, sending e-mails about their progress and alerting other elves to sales around town.
"When the P&C went out of business, they were offering backpacks for two dollars each," she said. "One of the volunteers bought the whole lot because she thought of the Backpack Program when she saw them."
Although the program cannot help schools that aren't represented with a Cornell liaison in the program, Brull says the Backpack Elves is evidence that activism at the personal level is more accessible than many think.
"We've all seen things that we think need changing," she said. "If you care about something, there's got to be an organization to help."
"And if there isn't one, start one," she advised.
To get involved with the Elves Backpack Program or to see which schools are represented, visit http://www.elves.cornell.edu.
Kathleen Jercich '11 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.