Everyone has seen the Salvation Army's Christmas Angel Trees -- dripping with cards listing the names of children and their gift wishes. But not so familiar is a nifty little project SA's soldiers and volunteers participate in each fall: the Book Bag Project.
Recently, 720 bookbags filled with school supplies were quietly distributed to kids who could use a helping hand. In its third year, the Book Bag Project this time supported children in six area schools: Jackson-Milton Elementary and Austintown's Lynn Kirk, Watson, Davis, Woodside and Lloyd elementary schools.
"We mass-packed the bags Aug. 1. All 16 or 17 board members, family and friends, participated and got it done in about two hours," said Dr. David Ritchie, part-time fund-raiser for the Salvation Army. Ritchie, a retired podiatrist, has an iron handshake and a brisk, businesslike walk. He strikes one as a man who gets things done, as does another project participant, Maj. David Lyle, SA's Mahoning County Area Coordinator.
Following a list
Their goal was not to load children up with what THEY thought they needed. Maj. Lyle, Dr. Ritchie and staff, including board member Carol Fye, who first researched the idea, went directly to the source, asking principals for supply lists.
"We gave the exact item in each bag that the school asked for," Maj. Lyle said. About 13 items went into the bags this year.
Great thought also went into the bookbag itself. Any idea of distinguishing the bags was tossed out in favor of allowing the recipients to remain as anonymous as possible.
Most of the supplies are purchased over the Internet, after bidding and a little price wrangling. "Carol Fye and her staff do a lot of shopping around," Dr. Ritchie said.
"We try to get the cheapest price, but quality," Maj. Lyle added. "We bid out the items and see what vendors do. It's very competitive."
What's most amazing, perhaps, is the display of faith these guys show. They don't raise funds and then decide to help that many children. "[The Salvation Army] is totally the opposite. We start with the need and [then] try to find the money," the major said.
& quot;We start with the schools and get the numbers," Dr. Ritchie added.
Maj. Lyle continued, "We're faith-based. Somehow, we always find the money. It's the same with Christmas. We're already meeting and planning. We'll have spent thousands of dollars before we get any money coming in. We just operate on faith."
Book Bag Project purchasing begins again in January or February, after new inquiries to the schools.
"We would like to expand into other areas in time, to other areas of the county," Maj. Lyle said. "If anyone would like to partner with us, we're certainly open to a dialogue."
"I think the major thing is expanding this thing. It could be anywhere," Dr. Ritchie said. "Children in [need] are all over the county."
Thanks from kids
And how do the kids like their book bags? Pretty well. The following are excerpts from letters sent to the Salvation Army last year:
Salvation Army tank you for the book bag! I really like the stuf. What I like the most is the eraser. That was very thoughtful of you. Tanks again.. & quot;
Thanks you for the supplies I like them. I need some for home. It is cool. Thanks again. & quot;
Thank you for the back pack and the supplies. I needed some. I liked the pens crayons markers pensils and books. I like the binder thank you for evry thing Salvation Army. & quot;
Thanks for the stuff. It was nice of you. It saved a lot of money for the new baby. Thanks again."