The backpacks included supplies ranging from the essential to the supplemental.
Toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, lotion and basic articles of clothing were packed along with books, toys, pencils, notebooks and paper. Both types of items had a specific purpose – the bundles were designed to take care of recipients' immediate needs, but also to provide a degree of comfort and support. The band-aids and Q-tips found a complement in new paperbacks and hand-crafted "Get Well" cards.
All of the items also held a common lesson for the Campus Middle School students who spent hours stuffing them into brand new backpacks bound for foster care agencies across the Denver metro area. The seventh-graders who prepared more than 200 bags stuffed with everything from puzzle books to hygiene items learned an elusive truth about empathy and perspective.
"We're understanding that there are a lot of kids out there who are going through a lot more than drama or someone getting a better grade than you," said Alexandra Kugelmas, a 13-year-old CMS student. "We're understanding that there are a lot bigger problems out there. Instead of feeling sorry for yourself, it's worth more to help others with those bigger problems feel better."
That kind of basic lesson in compassion was the driving force behind the volunteer drive by CMS students that raised resources worth about $3,400 for foster kids in the metro area. Seventh-grade teachers Garrett Weekley and Alexandria Melisaratos wanted to find a project that offered their students perspective, one that connected them with the power of selflessness and initiative.
"We're understanding that there are a lot of kids out there who are going through a lot more than drama or someone getting a better grade than you ... We're understanding that there are a lot bigger problems out there. Instead of feeling sorry for yourself, it's worth more to help others with those bigger problems feel better."
-- Alexandra Kugelmas, Campus Middle School seventh-grader
The answer came in a Facebook notification on Weekly's account that detailed a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing foster children with proper resources during a difficult life transition. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Comfort Cases assembles supplies for kids switching homes. They offer new backpacks full of valuable and usable items, priceless resources for those facing personal upheavals.
"This organization was founded with the idea that children who enter this situation usually come in empty-handed, or all of their belongings fit in trash bags. That's all they get when they're pulled from their home," Weekley said. "They started the idea of giving kids a bag so they actually had a piece of luggage and something they could call their own."
From there, Weekly and Melisaratos came up with some simple goals. They hoped to work with their students to raise enough donations to fill 100 bags for Colorado foster organizations, a goal that seemed lofty at first.
Thanks in large part to enthusiasm and effort on the part of the students, their families and other members of the CMS community, the pair's original goal was quickly surpassed. Students brought in enough donations to eventually fill more than 200 backpacks with supplies. Parents joined the effort, offering critical resources for the effort. What's more, CMS students volunteered their after-school hours to fill the bags and offer individualized cards and messages. In the end, more than 100 CMS students from the team contributed to the effort.
"We've had kids who were gung-ho from the beginning, and that brought a buy-in from their peers," said Melisaratos, who worked to ensure that a number of bags will go to kids in need from the Cherry Creek School District. "It just seemed like it was contagious. Along the way, the students watched videos about what these kids are going through, and it all started to have an impact."
The students gained a firsthand perspective on the value of their work during a visit from Susan Radaelli, program manager for Denver Human Services on May 11. Radaelli came to offer a heartfelt thanks for the students' contributions – with more than 200 full backpacks lined up against the wall of the gym in the background, Radaelli explained just how valuable they'd be to kids across the metro area.
"I wanted to recognize all of your hard work. This will have a great impact on children," she told assembled seventh-graders. "Your donation is an example of how collaborating can drastically help children … This isn't just about giving to others, it's about giving to yourself."
It's a message that resonated for CMS students like Gavin Tomey, 13.
"This makes me want to do other things for people," Toney said. "It feels good to volunteer."