Pencils, crayons, markers and notebooks are basic necessities found in the backpacks of students everywhere.
But for some children on the islands of St. Lucia and St. Vincent, acquiring those supplies is the one thing standing in the way of their education.
“There were kids at school, and there were quite a few that weren’t,” recalled Father John Ludden, the pastor at St. John the Evangelist Church in Naples, who has visited the islands several times. “So, I asked why, and the response was that because they cannot afford the materials to go.”
In response to that need, St. John the Evangelist and other churches in the Diocese of Venice started the Kids 4 Others Mission Backpack project to collect and send 2,000 book bags filled with school supplies for children on the islands.
Ludden and Elma McCaughey, the mission coordinator for the Diocese of Venice, began organizing the project in January. The goal for the St. John parish was 1,000 backpacks. The church made it their Lenten season mission project and collected $10 from each member. After four months, they accumulated $23,000 to buy 1,000 new book bags and various school supplies to fill them with. They also received donations of 75 slightly used backpacks.
“The response from our parish was overwhelming,” said Natalie Campbell, Ludden’s secretary and member of the church since 1997. “It’s not surprising that when there is need, we always rise to the occasion.”
The church has organized many charity projects before, but this one involved the most parishioners. Throughout the months, members could be found opening stacks of boxes, placing tags on backpacks and filling them with pencils, highlighters, scissors, glue sticks and other supplies, said Campbell.
“This is a labor of love,” said Loretta Sullivan, a volunteer and a member of the church for 12 years. “You love helping and knowing that this is going to help children go to school.”
Other Catholic churches in the diocese, including St. Ann and St. Elizabeth in Naples as well as St. Charles Borromeo in Port Charlotte and St. Andrew in Cape Coral, participated in the project by collecting about 1,000 used and new backpacks with supplies. Victoria Latavish, a first-grade teacher at St. Ann’s grade school, got her students involved by asking them to donate their own book bags at the end of the school year.
“They are a little too young to grasp the concept of it all, but they understood that they were giving a gift to someone far away that would help them,” said Latavish, who has been teaching for 12 years.
On a recent Monday morning, all the backpacks lay in a giant pile on the floor of St. John’s ballroom. Pink book bags adorned with Disney princesses sat next to brand new blue and grey ones. About 15 volunteers and staff descended on the mini mountain, filling carts with backpacks to load onto a truck headed for Pompano Beach Airport. From there, the cargo was placed on a container and shipped to the islands of St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Jamaica where the book bags will be distributed to children.
“These children are even less fortunate than the kids here,” said Donald St. Jean, a volunteer and member of St. Charles Borromeo Church. “Every little bit counts to help them.”
From now through August 13, young Catholics from different youth groups in the diocese will arrive at St. Lucia to work with the poor and deliver some of the backpacks to schools on the island.
“When people know there are kids who are in need of an education, there is just going to be a tremendous response from the heart,” Ludden said. “And that’s what we received. Now we can pass on that love to the children.”