PORTLAND – Taking yet another lap around an enormous warehouse filled with school supplies, Michelle Kelly reaches out for an empty bright red-and-yellow backpack without breaking stride.
A few steps later, she’s handed pencils, then paper, then glue sticks, then folders — a new item added with each step, all dropped into the backpack.
Kelly is one of 75 Unum volunteers who spent Wednesday morning at Ruth’s Reusable Resources on Blueberry Road, stuffing backpacks assembly-line style and dropping them into a huge bin. From there, they will be sent to thousands of needy students, free of charge.
“It feels good to give back,” said Kelly, who volunteered for the same program last year. “It makes it extra special to be doing it for the kids.”
For the 10th year, Ruth’s Reusable Resources is helping schoolchildren start the school year right, giving away more than 4,500 backpacks, each stuffed with about $50 worth of supplies to students at 19 schools around the state.
Ruth Libby founded her school supply nonprofit out of her basement 20 years ago. During the school year, Ruth’s Reusables gives supplies from various sources to teachers for a small yearly membership fee paid by each participating school.
Last year, more than 7,000 teachers got $4.5 million worth of supplies, said office administrator Mary Nablo.
Libby started the backpack program because she believes it’s the right thing to do.
The backpacks are given to schools where at least 75 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of the level of poverty. In order to remove any stigma associated with receiving a donated backpack, Ruth’s gives the backpacks free to every student at those schools.
“Ultimately, every kid in the state of Maine should have the basic supplies for school without breaking the bank for their parents,” said Libby during a rare break from running boxes of supplies from the back of the warehouse to the assembly line.
The demand is much higher than she can meet — more than 80,000 Maine children qualify for federally subsidized free or reduced-price meals at school. So Libby tries to donate to different schools each year to help as many students as possible.
On the wall above her head, dozens of photos and thank-you cards from students and teachers are a testament to the program’s impact.
The backpack program, done with the help of Unum and other sponsors, has grown rapidly over the years.
Launched before the 2004-2005 school year with just 50 backpacks going to a school in Caswell on the Canadian border, Ruth’s distributed 1,000 backpacks in 2008, and more than 3,000 in 2011.
Tough economic times have made a difference, she said.
“There’s such a need out there,” Libby said. “Sometimes the ones who can’t afford it are the ones living next door, and you just don’t know it.”
“Anything we can do to help kids get on the right track for the school year is great,” said Gail Gagnon, an Unum employee who has volunteered for the backpack program for the past six years. “I know I’m going to put a smile on a kid’s face.”
Over her shoulder, the volunteers continue in their endless circle, grabbing supplies and bopping along to the rock music playing from a speaker. As they make way for a dolly loaded with supplies to go by, the occasional cheer rings out, or the workers high-five each other going down the line.
“It’s a labor of love,” said Unum employee Susan Austin, pointing out that each backpack gets an index card with a handwritten note of encouragement — “Wear a smile!” “School is cool!” “Be a friend” — for each child.
Getting the backpack is a lesson in generosity for the students, too.
Libby said she got a letter from a little boy who told her a new girl had arrived at his school and “she didn’t have a backpack, so I gave her mine.”
For Libby, that’s the payoff.
“When you give over and over, people get it,” she said. “There are kids out there who don’t think anyone cares, and this tells them there are a whole lot of people involved in this and they all care about you.”
And the generous little boy?
Libby sent him another backpack.
Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: