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Project Backpack helps families in need

ELGIN – Vera Milwee of Carpentersville said there was already a large crowd Saturday on the Elgin Community College campus when she arrived there at 6 a.m.

Milwee, her daughter and her granddaughter, both of Hanover Park, filed into a line that snaked around the side of the college's Spartan Events Center, 1700 Spartan Drive, to a bus stop. When they emerged from the building about 4.5 hours later, they had four backpacks, one each for the granddaughter and three grandsons.

"It's a very good cause," Milwee said. "I wish more communities would do something like this."

Milwee's family took four of the 2,800 backpacks donated for Project Backpack, which is an initiative to distribute school supplies to local families on a first-come, first-served basis. The first family arrived at 8:15 p.m. Friday, but the center did not open until 9 a.m. Saturday, said Katie Storey, the college's Student Life Coordinator and leader of Project Backpack.

The event on Saturday helped hundreds of families within Elgin Community College District 509 boundaries, which includes a part of St. Charles School District 303. Families were required at the event to provide proof of residency or school enrollment within the college's boundaries.

The program, in its fifth year, continues to serve an increasing number of families, Storey said. School district homeless liaisons told her on Saturday that there are about 1,000 homeless students in District U-46 and about 300 in District 300. There are about 40,000 students total in those districts that qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, Storey said.

About 75 volunteers on Thursday helped fill the backpacks with supplies, and over 100 volunteers on Saturday were on hand to assist during the actual event, including brothers Taylor and Bryan Lantz, both 23, of Elgin.

The Lantzes hauled piles of backpacks onto tables so families could pick them up as they entered one of the center's rooms. The brothers said they understand why so many families come to Project Backpack because they had to wait in line at similar distribution events when they were younger.

"We were here to take advantage of them, now there's no reason not to give back," Taylor Lantz said. 

Bryan Lantz agreed with his brother and said the smiles on students' faces when they get their backpacks is priceless.

Storey said the event is about more than just backpacks. One of the center's gyms was host to 24 different agencies ready to talk to families and hand out materials, including a bag of lunch and dinner goods from the Northern Illinois Food Bank.

Diana Hernandez of Streamwood was not aware there was going to be so many different groups at the event. She picked up information from Administer Justice, a nonprofit charitable legal aid organization, and her three siblings picked up backpacks with supplies.

This was the first time the Hernandez family participated in Project Backpack. Hernandez said this is what her family needed because her father was recently laid off from his construction job and they are struggling to pay bills.

"This is a really great program to get the basic materials they need," she said.

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