Project Backpack in St. Louis

Carrying hope in a backpack

Project Backpack is a program that puts items children might need in a moment of crisis in a backpack that is distributed by first responders across the region

By Kristen Dragotto

Often when people think of St. Charles County and North St. Louis County, two distinct areas come to mind rather than one large community. However, for the St. Charles County Police Department and local nonprofit Project Backpack, community is defined by coming together for the betterment of a region and the people who are in it, proving that community knows no county line.   

Project Backpack is located in Bridgeton. The organization puts items children might need in a moment of crisis (home displacement, abuse, illness, etc.) in a backpack and then first responders, social workers and other people in community outreach, distribute the backpacks.  

Judy Pearlstone began the program after seeing the need for it in her own classroom at H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy. So, in 1999 she began Project Backpack and has been making a difference for children in the community ever since. Choosing to put the items in a backpack was an innovative and practical choice on Pearlstone’s part. However, the genius idea seemed so simple to Pearlstone at the time.

 “Putting the items in a backpack was a given,” Pearlstone explained. “They were always around and it just made sense.” 

Originally, the backpacks were packed with essentials that would last the child 24 hours. Today some of the backpacks are able last a child or teenager for a couple of weeks.

Pearlstone puts a lot of effort into them, making sure that every item is age-appropriate, in line with current trends, and have something extra to make the child receiving it smile. The backpacks themselves are separated by gender and age range and are valued between $60 and $150.  

 In 2015, Project Backpack branched out into St. Charles County, working with the SCCPD. For police officers like Shawn Birdsong, it has left the impression of a lifetime. Birdsong is described as the department’s ambassador for Project Backpack because of his passion for its cause. 

“(Project Backpack) benefits the community immensely. I believe it essential to connect with the youth in our community to mentor and provide a foundation of positivity. (As police officers) we have the unique opportunity to leave genuine impressions on our youth and their families. I believe that is why this program is an asset to the police departments and the community. It brings us together forming a bond with the community,” Birdsong stated. 

Birdsong has experienced this bond in his time as a first responder distributing the backpacks himself. 

“I had the unique opportunity several years ago to come in contact with a child who was sick and during that time I was able to provide that child a backpack and it evolved into a bond with the family who I still keep into contact with today.”

Birdsong has taken this program seriously and made a great effort in community outreach, taking the time to make sure he leaves a piece of himself with every backpack by adding a note, stickers or stuffed animal with each one. 

“In our community there is a lot of hardship that families face and that trickles down to the children as well. If we can come into a situation that is terrible and bad or tragic and we can provide some type of positivity for that family and that child, I believe that is definitely a positive thing.” 

Birdsong is always ready to help those in need and typically has two backpacks for each age range and gender, coming to a rough total of six-to-eight backpacks in his patrol car at a given time. 

It is collaborations like the one between Project Backpack and the SCCPD that shows that community is not confined or defined by cities or counties but rather is defined by the people who work together for the greater good of the area they call home.

If you or someone you know is interested in helping Project Backpack, you can donate in three different ways: your time, supplies and monetarily. For more information on project backpack you can visit www.backpackstl.org or call 314-993-3033. 

CUTLINE: Photos by Kristen Dragotto 

Cover-Backpack1 St. Charles County Police Officer Shawn Birdsong stands with backpacks provided by Project Backpack, a program that puts items children might need in a moment of crisis in a backpack that is distributed by first responders. 

Cover-Backpack2 Project Backpack founder Judy Pearlstone stands with one of her backpacks. Project Backpack is a program that puts items children might need in a moment of crisis in a backpack that is distributed by first responders.