Covid-19Magazine Exclusive

A back–to–school gift

The annual Back–to–School Distribution of backpacks at TD Garden, hosted by the Salvation Army’s Massachusetts Division, is usually a day–long celebration. The stadium, home to the Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins, is taken over by Salvationists and families in the community. But to ensure the event’s success during the ongoing COVID–19 pandemic, they made special arrangements.

“TD Garden wasn’t allowed to open until phase 4 of the state reopening. At the time, we were just starting Phase 3,” says Heather MacFarlane, director of communications, marketing and public relations for the division. “So, we turned to our corps locations in Boston, and over three days, we distributed 2,500 backpacks for schoolchildren.”

With community partners such as the Boston Public Schools and the Boston Bruins Foundation promoting the event, online registration filled up faster than in past years. Affordable Interior Systems (AIS), a Massachusetts furniture manufacturer, made child–sized face masks to put into each backpack as part of its “Sew the Masks” campaign.

“We wanted the children to have school essentials, but also face masks, hand sanitizer, and other products to reduce the risk of getting sick,” says Major Elvie Carter, corps officer at the  Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Boston, one of the locations where backpacks are distributed.

“Families were appreciative; many didn’t even think that The Salvation Army would be doing this event this year,” says Major Carter. “We gave away 700 backpacks at the Boston Kroc Center alone.”


A return to normalcy

Typically, a backpack filled with school supplies is just another sign that summer has ended and classes will soon be in session. However, after months of canceled activities, a school bag now represents even more.

“For a lot of families, it’s a sign of them returning to normalcy,” says MacFarlane. “Children know that, for now, it’s going to be a little different than before, but they are looking forward to seeing their friends.”

MacFarlane spoke to a mother who had lost her job due to the COVID–19 shutdown and was trying to save every dollar she could for her family. Another mother got emotional as her two young boys chose backpacks in their favorite color. “The boys’ faces lit up with pride as they put on their backpacks,” says MacFarlane.

Major Carter says that the parents are still concerned about how to keep their families healthy, whether they are in school or at home. Children in the Boston area have the option of taking classes completely online or dividing their course work between online and in–person classes, better known as a hybrid method.

“If I had children in school, I’d have the same fear these parents do,” says Carter. “It’s normal to be nervous, and it’s a personal decision that every family makes. That’s why we want to support the families, no matter what they choose to do.”


An introduction to the Army

Since the pandemic began, the Boston Kroc Center has conducted daily food distributions and home deliveries for families that must shelter in place. However, during the summer, the need has grown.

“When kids are home during the summer, water and electric bills always go up. But in a time when everything outside the home is also closed for them, the costs are even higher,” says Carter. MacFarlane agrees. “Many Salvation Army officers say they have never seen this much need for help with utilities.”

“The backpacks are the door that opens for us to help families,” says Major Carter. “It’s a way for them to discover how much we have to offer them.”

by Hugo Bravo