Collecting for needy is in the bag Woman gathers used school items

September 20, 1996|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

They were pink, green and purple, emblazoned with images of Aladdin, Barbie and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. And there were hundreds of them: miniature backpacks, lunch boxes and thermoses, only slightly used.

Shelley Laub eyed the pile of donated containers scattered at her feet with a mildly frazzled expression. Once again, she had collected many, many more backpacks than she had expected.

About a month ago, Laub, a 42-year-old homemaker who also runs a home-based business, asked her Columbia neighbors to donate backpacks and lunch boxes they no longer wanted to the needy. She did not expect the virtual flood of offerings that came.

In slightly more than two weeks, she said, donors coughed up more than 500 containers.

"It was such a logical idea, I just couldn't believe that no one had thought of it before," she said as she loaded packs and lunch boxes into garbage bags this week. "It really makes you realize how much you can do."

Each week since the donations began late last month, Laub makes the rounds through her neighborhood in Clemens Crossing, from the elementary school to a second collection site at the Mobil station in the Hickory Ridge village center and back to the school. On Wednesday, she collected six large garbage bags full of bags and boxes.

For children in affluent Columbia -- where youngsters often are burdened by an abundance of choices rather than lack of resources -- the act of organizing help for others was a crucial offshoot of the backpack donations, say adults involved in the project.

'Good for children'

"This is so good for children to participate in and witness," said Nancy Snovell, who works with troubled and homeless children through the Howard County school system. "It adds to their awareness that there are problems out there, and it's not someone else's problem to deal with. They can play a part, no matter how small."

Teachers and community activists declined to give details about the children who received the packs and lunch boxes for fear of stigmatizing them as charity recipients. Many needy children, who missed the ritual back-to-school shopping trip for lack of money, were delighted to have the nearly new school supplies, according to those who funneled the containers to them.

Some packs and boxes bear the scratches and tears of years of use. Some are brand new, and a few even have store tags still attached. Most are like the packs that Laub's two children gave away: used for a year or two, their designs a bit out of vogue, but with years of use still left in them.

"My 5-year-old had a Barney lunch box that he wouldn't be caught dead using," Laub said. "But we thought that some preschooler would like it."

Laub -- a relentlessly sunny woman who has thrown herself into the project -- has never done anything like this before. A Cleveland native, she has lived in Columbia since 1980 and was a special education teacher in Prince George's County for six years.

Starting effort

In August, as Laub was shopping for new backpacks for her children, the idea of collecting used packs to donate hit her.

"My kids and the kids in my neighborhood want a new backpack every year," she said, noting that she spent almost $100 on her sons' packs this year. "I knew there must be so many people out there who had old ones they didn't want to throw out but they didn't know what to do with them."

She went straight to Clemens Crossing Elementary, where her children -- Corey, 5, and Greg, 10 -- attend school and talked to the principal. Within a few days, she had created and printed color fliers on her computer, contacted the Mobil station and taken out advertisements in local newspapers.

Laub suspected that, for some donors, it would reach beyond simple charity: Why clog landfills with items that can be reused by someone else?

Soon the donations started flowing in. People called Laub at home asking where to bring them. Donors lugged bags to the school and the gas station. Two Girl Scout troops collected backpacks from their friends.

So many have come in -- most from residents of Clemens Crossing -- that the only real problem is where to store them until they can be given away, Laub says.

She then contacted charitable organizations and public agencies to find places for the packs and boxes to go.

Several in Howard County responded, including Columbia's Runningbrook Elementary School, the Children of Separation & Divorce Center, school system officials who serve needy children, local homeless shelters and a Columbia consignment store that gives them away.

Also, a community project in the Sandtown-Winchester area of Baltimore received about 25 backpacks to give to children in an after-school program.

Future projects

Laub said she is considering organizing more donations next year, perhaps starting in the late summer so that she can provide supplies to needy children before the school year starts.

She also is thinking about branching out to collect other things: shoes, clothes and other school supplies. She plans to invite parents of her children's classmates to a gathering to discuss charity possibilities.

At Rave Reviews, an upscale Hickory Ridge consignment store affiliated with Howard County General Hospital, customers can select one of the backpacks collected by Laub and simply take it, no questions asked.

"A lot of people are very skeptical," said Christa Pence, the manager. "They say, 'Can I just take it?' I think it's interesting that someone went to all the trouble to provide these. It's very nice."

Pub Date: 9/20/96

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