Eastern Kentucky is a hotbed of hand-me-downs. We do a lot of work in the region and this time, we’re here to drop off school supplies and check on the children as they begin the new school year. The thing I’ve noticed most is that children here have nothing new – unless it’s something we just handed them.

When you’re handing out school supplies to children whose parents couldn’t provide them, there are a lot of difficult moments, as well as poignant ones. As they come to the resource centers to collect their things, it’s the kids’ clothing that jumps out from a distance. Pants are too short, shoes are too tight, hems are frayed and holes are apparent – they’re wearing clothes they’ve outgrown that have clearly been handed down one too many times already.

Finding style on a budget of $0

But they’re trying hard. Kids with too-short jeans and missing buttons have obviously spent time and effort styling their hair just right and they’ve got all the mannerisms and body language of their peers on TV. They’re doing their best to be normal, cool, style-conscious kids even when there’s no one at home to help them do it.

But all of that cool falls apart in the face of a new backpack.

The three sisters

At one of our affiliate elementary schools, volunteer coordinator Kim introduced us to three sisters who live with their father. Becky and Amber are 10-year-old twins and Jordan is 8. Their father hadn’t provided any school supplies so Kim showed them to her supply closet, which she’s stocked with items from Children Incorporated and a few local donors.

DSCF2003 (1)Inside the closet, the girls were overwhelmed. It’s not that there was so much- it’s that there was anything at all. The sisters had clearly never been given the chance to pick out something for themselves – ever.

Amber and Jordan managed it fairly well – they viewed the selection and honed in on the backpacks they wanted.

Becky, however, was a different matter. She kept staring, picking up one and then another, paralyzed by having any options at all. Eventually, we had to encourage her to choose so she could get back to class and she finally walked out with her favorite.

But for days, I’ve been picturing her face, staring in stupefaction and trying to comprehend the message: “You have a choice. You can pick the one you want. And it’s new – not someone else’s reject. You can pick out the brand-new backpack that you like the best.”

What an amazing and terrifying thought for a 10-year-old who’s never been told anything of the sort before. And what a heartbreaking and yet touching moment to witness – at the age of 10, she’s offered a choice in something and it’s a brand-new something. But it’s taken 10 years for that to happen.

Something old, something new

That’s a moment we ended up witnessing over and over again on this trip: watching the faces of children being presented with new shoes, new backpacks, new magic markers – and often even a choice in which ones they wanted.

In many towns where we work, Children Incorporated isn’t the only major benefactor. But in eastern Kentucky, we are. Children Incorporated has donated $125-150,000 in supplies to each school here since we started and for most of these children, the only new items they’ll ever see come from our sponsors.

“You have a choice. You can pick the one you want. And it’s new – not someone else’s reject. You can pick out the brand-new backpack that you like the best.”

And that doesn’t cover all of them. Our volunteer coordinators estimate that 80-90 percent of each school could qualify for help. But there isn’t enough help to go around so every year we have children like Amber, Becky and Jordan who are getting support for the very first time.

We’ve seen a lot of moments when children first realized they were being gifted something brand new. But it’s Becky who stands out in my mind. She’s had that backpack for more than a week and I have no doubt it’s the best thing she’s ever been given – not just the backpack, but also the freedom of choice and the opportunity to even consider her own preferences and style.

What’s in your backpack?

It’s not the backpack – it’s the ownership, the agency and the knowledge that you’re good enough for something of your own and not just what no one else wants.

That’s what the sponsors are giving them in eastern Kentucky. It’s never just about the backpacks.

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HOW DO I SPONSOR A CHILD IN KENTUCKY?

You can sponsor a child in Kentucky in one of two ways – call our office and speak with one of our sponsorship specialists at 1-800-538-5381, email us at sponsorship@children-inc.org.