The Backpack Project
Interweave Members in the Community
Lori McConnell & the Backpack Project
Librarian Lori McConnell is not done making a difference in Irvington. Though she retired in 1999 as Director of the Public Library after a long career there, she has found a new way to serve this Essex County city, where 26 percent of children live below the poverty level and more than 75 percent of families are headed by single mothers.
With little fanfare, McConnell has been assembling and distributing school supplies to Irvington children in grades K-8 since 2001. Last year toys, shoes, coats, gloves, hats and scarves were added.
“I started in a small way eight years ago,” she reports, “taking a few boxes of pencils and some crayons, whatever I’d picked up at Staples” to the Irvington Neighborhood Improvement Corporation. “A line of mothers and children stretched around the block. It was 90 degrees, and it was such a vision of the need! By the end of the day we were handing out a handful of broken crayons; we’d run out of everything.”
That vision of need touched Lori’s heart, and soon her effort involved a good deal more than a couple of boxes of pencils. She now purchases backpacks for 200 children annually—and fills them with paper, notebooks, pencils, pens, rulers, crayons and markers. Often present at the distribution, she doesn’t call attention to herself. “I don’t want to be recognized, so I don’t speak to the moms directly. I love seeing the process, but nobody needs to know where it comes from. I’m just the person who transports it.” Along the way, a number of McConnell’s friends have come on board. One of them loves girls’ clothes, so this Easter some little girls in Irvington will receive brand new dresses. “People are excited to get involved,” she says.
Last year the effort expanded again. McConnell was offered the opportunity to buy new kids’ coats at a fraction of their retail value. As a result, more than 50 children received new coats in November through the Irvington Family Development Center, and she is already buying more to distribute next fall.
McConnell, who was honored last year by the Irvington Chamber of Commerce with their Community Service Award, marvels at the direction her “retirement” has taken. “I didn’t intend for [the project] to get so big. I never asked people to contribute. This is a miracle. I’m just the channel that it passes through." Which is not to say that Lori doesn’t work very hard. She does all of the shopping herself, and has become expert at tracking down discounts and sales. In September she purchased 135 backpacks from Kmart at 70 percent off for distribution next fall.
Hard work and a keen eye for sales doesn’t dampen her conviction that this venture is one of “abundance” and “miracles,” words that re-occur often in her stories. She’s come to feel that there’s “enough in the world,” that “scarcity” is an attitude we impose which structures our behavior. “I’ve come to believe that when you put yourself in the position to receive, it just flows. I’ve learned to trust that it will come.”