LITTLE FALLS, NJ - Local resident Mackenzie Bowers really wanted to help make a difference in the lives of other children. It all started when the 10-year-old, who will be entering middle school at School No. 1 this September, began brainstorming on what she could do to help other kids in need four years ago.
One day she overheard her mother Stephanie, who is a first grade teacher at a charter school in Newark, talk to someone on the phone about the students in her class. Mackenzie recalled that her mother felt bad that many of them were in need of basic school supplies.
"I overheard my mother saying that some of her students couldn't even afford to have things that they needed for their education and that she planned on purchasing some of those supplies for them herself," Mackenzie recalled.
It was then that she began to brainstorm on ways she could help, and she was determined to help those students.
"My father came up with a couple of choices and I picked backpacks that would contain basic school supplies," she explained. "My parents helped me kick off about 10 backpacks, and then we decided what should go in them."
According to Mackenzie, each backpack would include two glue sticks, an eraser, a notebook, six pencils, two folders, a pair of safety scissors, markers and crayons.
It was only a matter of time before her extended family and friends began to chip in and the collection began to snowball.
"The first year we did it, we were able to donate 50 backpacks," Mackenzie said. "The second year, it was a total of 88 backpacks that were donated. Last year, we hit a total of 180. My goal this year is to donate 250 backpacks, and so far we have about 100 already packed so we're halfway there. We only started a couple of weeks ago and I think we'll get to at least 200. We still have a lot to pack."
According to Stephanie, many who hear about the collection each year show an outpouring of support and tend to drop off checks or gift cards directly to the family, as a donation towards the backpacks. Many of those who contributed to the collection in prior years said they were hoping Mackenzie would be collecting once again.
"We're still considering where we will donate them for this upcoming school year," added Stephanie. "It's usually a little slow during the summer months but once we launch in August, right before school starts, we get bombarded, especially when the new video goes up on our Facebook page."
In addition to local students in need, some other recipients of donated backpacks in the past were from Brooklyn, N.Y., Jersey City, Newark, Paterson, Wharton and Glen Ridge.
"We have contacts in the town here who give us leads and usually point us in the right direction to find students who might need them," Stephanie explained. "We just want to get the word out there. We posted a new video this year on our Facebook page and we're hoping that will help spread the word. I also have a couple of friends who are teachers, including the principal at the school I work at, so I usually take some over to the school. In addition, we have huge support from the Little Falls community. Everyone is so generous."
Mackenzie is hoping to continue the drive year after year and said it's been a rewarding experience for her these last few years. Some of her favorite subjects in school are language arts, and science. She said she hopes to follow in her mother's footsteps and become a teacher.
"It feels good to help other kids who are in need and that I hope I can make it a little easier for them to pursue their education, with support from the community," she said. "I hope to run this collection each year for as long as possible. I want it to grow and become bigger and better each year. I'm happy that I've been able to help children that don't have some basic necessities."
"I want to thank my mom and dad, along with younger brother Max, who have helped me with the collection," Mackenzie said. "Maybe next year, we'll collect 300 or more. That'll be amazing."