By Darla Tucker
When 9-year-old Quetzalli Dominguez opened her new backpack to find the colored pencils and other school supplies inside, it was almost like Christmas. “I love it,” she said, smiling behind her face mask decorated with small hearts.
But unlike holiday toys, the backpack gift brings deeper benefits—it will help Quetzalli complete her assignments this fall, encourage her interests in school, and ease expenses for her family. The youngster was among about 150 third- and fourth-graders at Twinhill Elementary School in Riverside, Calif., who received backpacks filled with school supplies on Aug. 28. The outreach was part of the “Every Child. Everywhere. In School.” campaign rolled out over the past year by the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA).
In total, 5,000 green and black school backpacks were filled and distributed during August and September through a partnership with La Sierra University. The majority were delivered to 41 public schools in the Alvord and Riverside unified school districts, aiding students enrolled in free lunch programs. A portion of the backpacks were also contributed to students in need at several Seventh-day Adventist academies scattered around Southern California, from Needles at the Arizona state line southward to the Los Angeles area and beyond.
Around 15 La Sierra students, masked and wearing blue surgical gloves, worked at the Zapara School of Business over two weeks in late August, unwrapping boxes of backpacks and filling them with notebooks, pencils, pens, rulers, glue, erasers, colored pencils, scissors, and pencil sharpeners. A blue and gold La Sierra University “Change Your World” keychain was attached to the outside of each pack.
For the La Sierra University students, the outreach was a welcomed opportunity to help others and interact with their peers. The university’s foundational service and missions programs have been reconfigured due to the pandemic, and the campus has been functioning primarily online since March.
Ashley Peak, a third-year pre-dentistry major at La Sierra and former member of the student association, was grateful for the opportunity to become the hands and feet of Jesus in the community once again. “This past summer I truly was just at home, kind of thinking like, ‘Well, what am I doing here? I really feel like I’m not helping the community whatsoever.’ And in that sort of way, it was kind of hard for me to connect with God and Jesus,” she said. “Thankfully, I was met with this wonderful opportunity to volunteer.”
She added, “I think it really means a lot for the kids to be able to receive something from a college student, and they know that it’s from La Sierra University.… And if they want a fulfilling college life, you know, full of volunteer outreach opportunity, I think La Sierra could be an option for them as well.”
For educators, the donation of backpacks and supplies to young students comes at a crucial moment for families, many of who live in vulnerable circumstances made worse by the pandemic.
Approximately 98 percent of the 430 students at Twinhill Elementary participate in the district’s free and reduced fee lunch program, said Principal Mary McAllister-Parsons, and about 50 percent are English language learners, with many coming from immigrant families. “I’m super grateful for this outpouring of love, because that’s what I consider this,” she said. “It provides [students] with the means to enhance their learning. And it shows them that their learning and their education is important…to our community.”
Youngsters in TK through 6th grade at Mesa Grande Academy in Calimesa, Calif., received about 100 backpacks with supplies. After discussions in her fourth-grade Bible class, teacher Kristin Penington said her students decided they would personally each donate the packs to community families in need. The other classes decided to join them. The academy students designed and wrote greeting cards, which they put inside the packs.
Penington’s students have experienced their own difficulties and traumas as a result of the pandemic, with some facing the added stress of being impacted by the nearby El Dorado wildfire. “It’s an opportunity for the students to…pay it forward to the community,” Penington said. “They can give,…and be blessed more through that process of giving. To know that you have something to give and to extend that to others comes back around.”