Students distribute free backpacks and school supplies

A backpack full of school supplies can take a big chunk of a family’s budget – more so if the family has several children in school.

On Saturday, student teachers from University of Wisconsin System schools and art students from UWM helped a community organization ease that concern for some families.

Student teachers from the Institute for Urban Education housed at UWM, and from UWM’s Peck School of the Arts, joined with Bridge of Hope Center, Inc., an organization that works with families in low-income neighborhoods. The is the fourth year of the backpack giveaway.

As part of a community block party at 18th and Hopkins streets, hundreds of children received  backpacks and were able to pick their own school and art supplies.

Sharon Lyles brought her grandchildren to get them be ready for the start of school. “I have notebooks and pencils so I can be successful at school,” said Lyles’ granddaughter, Iyonna Rankins.

The event gave the 25 Institute for Urban Education students – who are from UW System schools of education outside Milwaukee – the opportunity to experience and understand urban education and its diversity, said Tracey Nix, director of the institute.

“We wanted the students to become familiar with the neighborhood before they started teaching,” Nix said. Many of the institute’s student teachers come from predominately white suburban or rural communities, but have in interest in teaching in an urban setting.

“We thought an event like this was a good way to start their service learning, and give them a chance to interact with children and families outside the classroom,” she said.

The project evolved from Nix’s friendship with Mary Gracia Paz, director of Bridge of Hope, which provides mittens, hats, food, Thanksgiving dinners and other supplies to children and families in poor neighborhoods.

“When we would go out to the community with clothes and food, we saw how many of the children didn’t have backpacks, books and supplies for school,” Paz said.

Nix and Paz wrote a grant application to UWM’s Cultures and Communities to help buy supplies, and asked the Peck School for help.

Instructor Elizabeth Rex and students from the school joined the project to select the art supplies, and to help children attending the event enjoy art activities.

Support for the project also came from Brown Street Academy and the WI Family Assistant Center for Education, Training & Support.

“I’m getting a sense of community that I wouldn’t if I weren’t participating in something outside of school, said Sara Westerbeke, a senior from UW-Eau Claire. “This was a unique opportunity to work with all different kinds of people from all different kinds of backgrounds.”

To provide donations of school and art supplies, contact Nix at


Also on Saturday, volunteers from the School of Education made the walk to school a little easier, giving away more than 1,000 pairs of shoes they’d collected and refurbished over the spring and summer to families who needed them. Read more about their efforts.

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