With the start of school, thoughts turn to getting stocked up on school supplies, and possibly a new backpack. One organization in Hanover Park made sure that local children had plenty of both.
The Backpack Buddies Club celebrated its 10th anniversary this month by doing what they do best: stuffing backpacks.
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In an assembly line fashion, more than 80 volunteers worked at the Hanover Township Senior Center in Bartlett. They indeed carried out the adage that many hands make light work, as they filled 801 backpacks in just over an hour and a half.
"It was a record for us," says founder Cindy Dittmer of Hanover Park.
The day drew more volunteers than ever, and their one-day project turned out their biggest crop of backpacks yet.
Volunteers included Bank of America employees in Hanover Park, as well as staff members from Hanover Township, the Kiwanis Club of Streamwood, the Streamwood Women's Club and even Rodney Craig, mayor of Hanover Park.
It started as a Make a Difference Day project in October 2001 with Dittmer and her children around her kitchen table. Since then, it has produced thousands of backpacks for homeless and underprivileged children.
At last count, they have distributed nearly 7,000 backpacks, primarily to families served by the Hanover Township Food Pantry and the Elgin Community Crisis Center, as well as WINGS in Arlington Heights, Streamwood Behavioral Health Center, Lazarus House in St. Charles and Home of the Sparrow in McHenry.
"It is very rewarding when the first day of school is over and many of the families stop in Astor Avenue Community Center (in Hanover Park) to tell us how their first day went," said Mary Jo Imperta, Hanover Township welfare services director. "They love their backpacks and without the help of Backpack Buddies many would not attend school the first day."
Dittmer is a stay-at-home mother, who home-schools her six children. Her oldest son, Eric, was 10 when they started. He now is 20 and provides much of the muscle in transporting the backpacks.
Daughter Danielle, 18, does web design for the Backpack Buddies Club, while her sister, Lauren, 16, keeps everyone organized, their mother says. Younger children Megan, 15, Adam, 13 and 3-year-old Molly all actively contribute. Her husband, Grant, provides unlimited support, Cindy Dittmer adds.
Back in 2001, they were named a Make a Difference Day local winner by the Daily Herald and the Points of Light Foundation. They subsequently were profiled in the USA Today Weekend magazine and awarded a $500 check for the charity of their choice, which they contributed to the Elgin Community Crisis Center.
However, they didn't stop there. They have continued to scour ads for specials on backpacks, while accepting donations from local businesses and from one of their main sponsors, the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation in Denver.
Numbers of volunteers have grown too, beyond the Dittmer family and their friends, as evidenced by the turnout this month.
Still, Dittmer concedes that donations have slowed in recent years with the economic downturn. Yet the organization continues, and stays true to its mission. Four times a year they collect and fill new backpacks with school supplies and basic comfort items, including stuffed animals, pillows and blankets.
"I never thought it would grow like this," Dittmer says. "My children have learned some great lessons about working and serving other people, and about the need right around them."
They always seek donations, including backpacks, blankets, hats, mittens and toiletries. For more information, visit www.backpackbuddiesclub.com.