MERIDEN — The start of school can be stressful enough for parents and kids without wondering how they can afford all of the supplies they need to start off right.
On Sunday morning at the firehouse on Chamberlain Highway, volunteers and firefighters from Meriden Fire Local 1148 stuffed 1,000 backpacks with all the school supplies a child might need for their particular grade level.
The backpacks will be distributed at the Meriden Back to School Expo, taking place Tuesday, Aug. 20 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the Meriden Green.
Students from grades kindergarten through eighth will have the opportunity to pick up their free backpack and meet with local non-profit service agencies. “It’s nice to see them light up and get excited,” said Matt Avery, a Meriden firefighter and one of the organizers.
Meriden Fire Local 1148 has been preparing backpacks for distribution to needy students for the past six years.
Thanks to their hard work and the generosity of contributors from all over the city, close to 9,000 backpacks filled with school supplies have found their way to kids who need them.
“There are a lot of people who believe in this program and there are a lot of people who depend on this program,” said Ryan Gilhuly, a Meriden firefighter and one of the organizers of the effort.‘Adds up quickly’
Under the watchful eye of Martha-Anne Noonan, an eighth grade language arts teacher at Lincoln Middle School, the volunteers worked in an assembly line, making sure that each of the approximately 20 items per pack finds its way inside. Pens, pencils, crayons, rulers, notebooks, binders, note cards — you name the school supply and Meriden Fire Local 1148 had procured it.
Avery said assembling all of the materials can get expensive for parents, about $30 to $40 per pack. “It adds up quickly,” he said.
Dozens of volunteers gathered at Meriden Fire Department's Station One to fill backpacks with school supplies on August 18, 2019. Every summer, city firefighters fill hundreds of backpacks for the Meriden Back to School Expo, where students can get free backpacks and school supplies. | Devin Leith-Yessian/Record-Journal
Noonan has seen firsthand that when students start the school year without the right supplies it sets them at a disadvantage.
“We have students who come and don’t have what they need to be successful,” Noonan said. “When a student shows up to school and they are without basic supplies they already feel like they are behind.”
The issue isn’t just an academic one or an economic one. There are psychological factors in play as well.
“It takes an emotional toll. Everyone wants to fit in. Everyone wants to feel like they are equal. No one wants to feel like (others) start out with an advantage that they don’t have,” Noonan said.
Gilhuly said one year he was approached by a first grader who wanted the firefighters to see his backpack from the previous year. “He was taking care of it. He was proud of it. It meant a lot for us to see that,” Gilhuly said.
“The success of the students in Meriden is important to us. Coming here and helping students be successful in a capacity beyond what we already do is reassuring,” Noonan said.
Meriden Fire Local 1148 seeks monetary contributions to the backpack effort year-round. People interested in making a donation can do so at any Meriden fire station.