In a room filled with baskets of school supplies, volunteers from the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington stuffed backpacks with specific children in mind, making sure they are filled with whatever supplies the child might need for the coming school year: pencils, binders, paper and erasers. 

Their mission was to provide backpacks for the 50 families with children that are part of St, Matthew’s Adopt-A-Family ministry, which exists to support low-income families within their parish community. This year, the back-to-school drive filled 124 new backpacks for the kids to bring to school this fall.

“The idea is to help them by providing tools for success, so they have a successful year,” said Norma Canedo, coordinator for social justice ministries at St. Matthew’s.

Collecting donated supplies after Masses over two weekends at the end of July and the beginning of August, Canedo worked with volunteers to gather inventory of what was collected, shop for whatever supplies were still needed and hand out backpacks to the families during pick-up. The backpacks are specifically made for each child, with volunteers calling the families to make sure they know what supplies they might need. 

“We don’t get them all the supplies, but we do get them started,” Canedo said. “Some of these families have many kids, so they’re grateful for that extra help.”

Canedo noted that since everything is collected through donations, one impact is “seeing how giving and generous” their parish community can be. 

Aasha Henderson, a junior at Duke University in North Carolina, has volunteered with various projects with the social justice committee at St. Matthew’s since 2017 with her brother Aanan and her father Darius.

Seeing how her church was able to help people in the community who might be struggling was a powerful experience, Henderson said. 

“It’s the least I can do,” she said, adding that she recognizes the joy the backpacks bring the children and the help it provides to the families in need. 

“The kids are super excited,” Henderson said. “I remember when we were getting ready for school, and it sounds little, but for a kid that (a new backpack) is literally how they can start their school year off on the right foot, making education important.”

Henderson studies sociology and global health in college, and she said social justice plays a role in her future career plans. 

“Empowering people is at the core of what I want to do,” she said. “It’s important to think about the people who need help.”

Eminence Griffin, a member of St. Matthew’s Cathedral, has volunteered with the back to school drive for the past nine years. Her husband Mike also volunteers, and the two have been volunteering together since they started dating five years ago. 

“We just always think it’s so great to give back to such an important thing,” she said. “The kids need this, and you don’t want them to be worried about if they’re going to have enough pencils -- so they aren’t stressed about the little things, and can enjoy learning and be a kid. 

“The parents are always so grateful and you can just see it in their eyes,” she continued. “You just see that a burden has been lifted.” 

Mike Griffin worked with Teach for America for two years in the Mississippi Delta Region, which he said helped him understand the needs of so many students and teachers. 

“So many students in classrooms are under resourced, and so supplying the classrooms becomes important in order that they can learn,” Mike Griffin said. 

He said that through their years of working with the back to school drive, both he and his wife learned what is most helpful to the families as they get ready to go back to school, namely backpacks.

St. Matthew’s Adopt-a-Family program also assists parishioners during other seasons throughout the year, mainly through programs surrounding the holiday seasons: Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.