Thousands of area residents joined dozens of their neighbors -- who already had camped out overnight -- to get a free backpack filled with school supplies Saturday at the Elgin Community College campus.
They knew it would be a long wait. It would be sunny and warm. They'd have paperwork to fill out. But this is what the Black Friday of back-to-school shopping looks like when you're a dedicated parent, but don't have hundreds of dollars to spend on school supplies.
Saturday marked the fifth year the college has teamed up with local volunteers, businesses, churches and other community organizations for Project Backpack, which distributes the supplies to families in need on a first-come, first-served basis.
ECC Student Life Coordinator Katie Storey said they've handed out more than 7,000 backpacks since 2010, but Saturday was set to be the biggest day ever, with nearly 3,000 backpacks awaiting the little shoulders of the youths lined up outside.
"These families wait as long as it takes, because they are in need," Storey said. "They are willing to do whatever it takes to get the supplies their kids need. If that means being here at 8:15 the night before, like some did this year, then that's what they'll do."
The line stretched nearly the full length of one of the college's interior roads. Once inside, participants selected from multiple backpacks with boy, girl and neutral themes. The backpacks contained supplies based off lists supplied by local schools. After claiming a backpack, the participants could meet with representatives of various community agencies that provide services to low-income families.
Nanci Alanis, a longtime Project Backpack volunteer, said she keeps coming back to help because she remembers how key the supplies are for students. "Growing up, I remember my favorite part of starting school was the new school supplies I would get," Alanis said, "If not for these backpacks, these kids would be starting the year with nothing, and that doesn't feel good. Their parents would be choosing between spending money on supplies or food. And we want everyone to start their school year with the supplies they need to be successful."
Even with the event receiving more backpack donations than ever before, volunteers said it was possible, even somewhat likely, that some people who arrived later in the day would leave without a backpack. They'd be offered other goods, including food, that were donated but weren't specifically school-themed.
More than 100 volunteers kept participants flowing smoothly through the process. Storey said she is always looking for more volunteers and more donations. She has every expectation of hosting an even larger event next year.