Students make an impact at Christmas
Okotoks: St. JPII helping 600 people in need with annual Backpack Campaign
Wednesday, Dec 13, 2017 06:00 am
Students are getting into the spirit of giving at a local junior high school by filling backpacks for those in need.
St. John Paul II Collegiate students have participated in the annual Backpack Campaign since the school opened its doors in 2005. They have helped thousands of Foothills families have a merry Christmas over the past 13 years.
Stacey MacNeil, teacher at St. JPII, said the campaign was originally run by the Campbell family in Millarville until it outgrew their home and the school took over. It began with 200 to 300 backpacks per year, but has since escalated to between 600 and 700.
“Since it’s started we’ve doubled,” said MacNeil. “The donations, what we receive from sponsorship, has also grown.”
She said the school used to rely on students bringing in goods to fill the backpacks – items like shampoo and conditioner, shaving cream, toques and mitts, socks and other small necessities.
The past few years, the community has stepped up to help in a big way, she said.
“Now lots of people in the community are very aware of us and we get lots of donations that way as well,” said MacNeil.
They also receive donations from students at other Christ the Redeemer schools in Okotoks, including the St. Francis of Assisi Collegiate at Heritage Heights, she said.
Backpacks are given to families in the Foothills who have signed up for the Magic of Christmas in Okotoks, Turner Valley, Black Diamond and High River, she said. They’re delivered on the Magic of Christmas buses, which will be making their trek through the Foothills on Dec. 16 this year.
There have been some situations where backpacks are given to people outside the Magic of Christmas program, she said.
Two years ago, the campaign caught wind of six homeless men in Calgary who had pooled all their bottle money and donated it to charity. To thank them for their generosity, MacNeil took six backpacks to the men on the street.
“Sometimes there will be those types of situations we find out about,” she said. “That’s what we’re here for, to help out those in need.”
The students at St. JPII are eager to get involved with the Backpack Campaign year after year. Hundreds sign up to take shifts sorting items and packing bags in their own time after school – about one-quarter of the student population, she said.
This year, there was a wait list of students wanting to help out with the campaign – including alumni who wanted to return from high school to lend a hand, she said.
Students fill each backpack with toiletries, feminine hygiene products, razors and also gift cards, a blanket and other items to brighten the recipient’s Christmas.
In total, the Backpack Campaign donations and items carry a value between $25,000 to $35,000, she said.
Vice-principal Jennifer Quinlan has also been involved since the beginning and said it’s always overwhelming to see the amount of support for the Backpack Campaign.
“We don’t think about it being that massive because it’s just what we’re used to,” said Quinlan. “A lot of people come in and they don’t realize how big it is until they see the room. It’s huge.”
She said the need has grown in the past few years, first due to the flood in High River and then the economic slump that followed.
It’s increased the number of backpacks needed and the amount of items to be collected or purchased, but the school community stepped up, she said.
“We have some elves on staff,” said Quinlan. “They’ll offer to do whatever we need. They offer to go shopping for us in the evening because we have to reassess every single night, because if we run out of something we have to stop packing.”
There are other ways the staff helps out. Foods teacher Joe Buck and his students baked 132 dozen cookies after school to include treats in each backpack.
Some parents also get involved, including two whose children graduated high school five years ago.
“I taught their kids 13 years ago and they’re 23 or 24 years old and these moms every year are still with us, every single year,” said Quinlan.
It’s had a major impact on students as well, like a student who asked her mom to spend half their family’s Christmas budget on campaign donations.
Her generosity is just one example of how the junior high students are affected and how they’ve helped make the campaign what it is today, said Quinlan.
“It’s super freaking cool, that’s all I have to say,” she said. “We know how blessed we are.
“This is my Christmas. This is the most exciting time for me.”