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Free School Backpacks Worth Their Weight in Gold


They began lining up in the darkened parking lot by 3:30 am. At least a thousand had joined their weary ranks when the doors opened at 9. They weren't waiting for a chance to trade a clunker for cash, or tickets to witness a cosmic resurrection of Michael Jackson. The Back-to School Fair was distributing free backpacks and school supplies on Saturday, and these parents and their children wanted to make sure they arrived before stock ran out.

In the seven weeks since beginning the Recession Roadtrip, chaos theory has regularly occupied my mind. But instead of the dainty flap of a butterfly, I feel like the powerful wings of an American eagle launched this economic tsunami.

In 2006, an early ripple of defaults on subprime mortgages began to deflate the housing bubble, which ultimately popped when bargain basement foreclosed properties flooded the real estate market.

In the financial sector, the housing crisis led to a massive drop in value for mortgage-backed securities, which in turn created a loss in revenue for investment groups and financial institutions holding the now-worthless products. In such a cash crunch, new lending and investment became unfeasible, which slowed economic growth and pinched businesses that relied on the financial institutions for liquidity. From large corporations to small businesses, layoffs and bankruptcies rippled down through the web of interdependency.


Simultaneously, as the housing crisis put a halt to new building, civil engineering and construction-related firms began mass layoffs. The widening circle of downturn then hit manufacturing plants that fabricated everything from roofing tile to piping used in heating and cooling systems. Next came those dealing in the raw materials: lumber mills, rock quarries, copper and iron ore mines.

As those shockwaves originating from the mortgage crisis rippled through the US economy, consumer spending dropped as the newly unemployed cut back on unnecessary expenses. When people stopped spending money, the circle of downturn further widened to include retail, the service and hospitality industries, entertainment, and the already-struggling automotive sector.

I had been thinking of that segment of the economy devoted to producing and selling consumer goods and services as a kind of outer ring ripple effect that began when subprime mortgage defaults dropped a 100-ton stone into the American economic pond. But over the past week I realized that I've been ignoring another ripple currently lying obscured just beyond the horizon--that of a generation whose education will be negatively impacted by hardships brought on by the recession, both as a result of schools with tight budgets having to cut programs and layoff educators, and because many unemployed parents are having trouble providing the even most basic supplies and nourishment that make learning possible.


It reminds me of a comment by Henry Ford--as quoted by Edmund Wilson: "By underpaying men we are bringing on a generation of children undernourished and underdeveloped, morally as well as physically: we are breeding a generation of workingmen weak in body and mind, and for that reason bound to prove inefficient when they come to take their place in industry." Ford was discussing minimum wage laws, but the idea easily applies to the children of the under- or unemployed today.

At the Back to School Fair held at the Kansas National Guard Armory on Saturday, nearly 3,800 backpacks filled with school supplies had been distributed by the end of the day.  Organized and funded by a coalition of twenty non-profits and local business operating under the fiscal agent "Communities in Schools," and in partnership with the Kansas City School District, this was the event's seventh year of providing backpacks, paper, pencils, crayons, books, and other critical learning tools to the area's neediest students.


As chairman of the Back-to-School Fair for the past three years, Christal Watson has volunteered hundreds of hours to the program, witnessing firsthand how the recession has increased need for assistance. In 2007, the fair distributed just over 2,000 backpacks. Last year, it was closer to 3,000. They had prepared 3,800 for this Saturday, and were down to a few dozen left as the line dwindled by mid-afternoon.

According to Steve Goceljak, the executive director of Communities in Schools, the total cost estimate for the event, including supplies, room rental, and labor, would run about $65-70,000. But so many pitched in to make it feasible--the Kansas National Guard supplied the facility rent-free and soldiers helped with set-up and teardown; United Way organized about 220 additional volunteers.

Throughout the day, a steady flow of children emerged from the Armory gymnasium sporting brand new blue or gray Seabrook backpacks. Eager to open them up and see what backpack5.JPGeducational treasures lay within, some sat down on the curb or grass just outside the building to start digging through their new backpacks. Those too young for school sometimes broke into a tearful tantrum, jealous of the new present an older sibling had acquired.

"I don't know what's inside, but it's heavy," Deonte Johnson tells me, as he holds onto the straps and spins around in circle. "Maybe it's gold! It's so, so, so heavy I think I might fall over!" With that, a grinning Deonte feigned collapse, pulled by the imaginary weight of a backpack filled with gold.

"Gold. Wouldn't that be nice," Deonte's mother Cheryl says, pulling him up from the ground. "If there be gold in that bag, we won't be back here next year!"

Back in February, Cheryl Johnson, single mother of 7-year-old Deonte, was laid off from her managerial position at a hotel in Overland Park, Kansas. She began working for the same hotel again one month ago, though this time in backpack6.JPGhousekeeping, a job that earns only minimum wage. This is her first year attending the Back-to-School fair. Without it, she is not sure how she would have paid for school supplies. "We already eat ramen for most meals. Deonte is wearing his cousin's old clothes. I priced everything the school said he would need and it came to $32. At Wal-Mart! I know that don't sound like much, but it's $32 more than we have right now."

"Life's hard. Everything so hard right now," Cheryl says, her smile fading, voice trembling. "I never had a chance for real education in my life. I will sacrifice anything to see Deonte gets more opportunity than I did. But right now I got nothing left to sacrifice."

"These people," she says, gesturing back towards the armory. "I praise the Lord for them. They's doing God's work. Like angels walking the earth--that's the only way I can describe them."