Building backpacks for success

4 MIN READ

Building backpacks for success

Youth have been disconnected from their mentors, teachers, role models and friends for many months. But, as kids prepare to re-engage with their teachers and classmates this fall, back-to-school prep holds different meanings for families across our region.

Those living in low-income neighbourhoods—and rural communities— often have unequal access to resources like technology, school supplies, and learning supports that help them keep up in school. This means the return to in-person learning will be even harder for some.

United Way believes that every child has the right to a good life, a safe place to grow up, learn, and make good friends—no matter where they live or their personal circumstances. That’s why we work together with donors, businesses, organizations and partner agencies to ensure every kid has the basic building blocks to stay on track to succeed.

A year disconnected

Remote learning, while necessary to protect our communities, has not worked for all kids.

Faced with navigating a new landscape of remote learning, many youth struggled with access to materials and engagement in their learning. Kids who have barriers to technology and internet access, are without adult support, or need hands-on learning approaches have seen a widening academic achievement gap.

For those who were able to connect to their classrooms, many struggled to thrive in a virtual setting that tempted distractions and disengagement.

Although the factors vary for each circumstance and family, the results ended in the same outcome—chronic absenteeism.  

During the previous academic year, the Institute for 21st Century Questions (21CQ)—the think-tank behind The Worldwide Commission to Educate All Kids (Post-Pandemic)—estimates that 200,000 kids in Canada are not attending either physical or virtual school.

Schools are at the center of our communities and are hubs of social activity for youth. When schools closed, many were unable to get the essential social contact needed for proper learning and development. The disconnect and isolation lead to more youth reporting more serious mental health issues including problematic substance use and suicidal ideation.  

The burden of back-to-school lists

Back to school often brings an air of excitement for kids as the upcoming year is full of possibilities: new friends to connect with, teachers and mentors to learn from, and clubs to explore their passions. However, for many across our region, the end of summer can bring stress and anxiety as school supplies can be a financial burden and strain on families.

Ottawa is home to more than 23,000 kids who live in poverty. If parents and caregivers don’t have the means to equip their kids with the tools they need to succeed in school, this can widen the academic gap between low-income and middle-class students and increase the risk of learning loss when remote learning is factored in.

COVID-19 poses an enormous equity challenge when it comes to school 

Come September, kids will be far behind where they were pre-pandemic. Many have been set back not only academically, but also in social and emotional learning and mental health. Some have experienced grief, financial strain, and isolation.

To combat this, through community round tables, United Way and our partners have been providing and advocating for solutions to help support local children and youth. 

Partnering for success

PCL Construction in Ottawa wanted to ease a burden on families across our region and help youth feel confident and prepared to tackle the upcoming school year.

Through United Way East Ontario’s Back-to-School Kit Building program, 146 PCL employees banded together to fill 226 backpacks with more than 3,000 school supplies.

“Our staff understands how difficult this past year has been on both students and parents—for many of them, it has been a lived experience of finding support and care for their own children during a time of uncertainty. So, when given the opportunity to ease some of the back-to-school stress for local families in Ottawa’s community houses, there was no hesitation in stepping forward to help.”

— Paul Knowles, PCL Ottawa Vice-President and District Manager
PCL Team

“Our goal has always been to be a good neighbour, and that means ensuring that we’re giving as much back to our community as they give to us every year.”   

In Ottawa, backpacks were delivered to the Russell Heights Community House—a non-profit organization dedicated to the wellbeing of the children, youth, and families.

For nearly 30 years, they have served a culturally diverse, rent-geared-to-income social housing community in South-East Ottawa. The community is comprised of large families, many of which are headed by single parents or newcomers. 

“The backpacks provide an opportunity for us to check in with the community and ensure they’re ready for school. New school supplies help children get excited for the new school year. And this year will be a big transition for families.”

— Sara Dwyer, ED Russell Heights Community House
United Way and Russell Heights team

United Way sees firsthand how so many families in our communities are deeply impacted by the effects of COVID-19. When individuals and organizations like PCL Construction show their local lovewe can lift people out of the daily struggles that make life difficult. 

Kids at Mississippi Mills Youth Centre
The increased social needs of our communities—especially our kids—will require our continued attention for years to comePlease consider donating to United Way to ensure kids are set up for success for the long-term.  
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Take a look at our COVID-19 Response Impact Report to see incredible highlights of community work, our call to government, and detailed breakdowns of our impact and its outcomes.

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