Free education is not free. Though in principle all children in Trinidad and Tobago have access to free schooling, not all of them can afford to take up the offer. Government already provides free textbooks, breakfast, lunch, and tuition, you might note, and it is up to parents to provide the other necessities for attending school. Yet, it’s not always easy for parents to do so. As a parent myself I can tell you the cost of outfitting a child for school is high, even with all the above provided free. Each child has to have a book bag, for one. Textbooks might be free but stationery isn’t, and you might cast your own mind back to your days in uniform to remember what it was like to forget a copybook at home, or to not have a copybook at all. Even apart from other things like uniforms and shoes, there are also personal hygiene requirements like deodorant, soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush, without which a child would be embarrassed to sit in class or might even be put out of class in some situations.
Recognising this, a group of young people has sought to help some Caribbean children seize free education. Melissa Enmore and Michelle Kandasammy have come up with The Backpack Project, a non-profit that aims to provide assistance to needy children by giving them a backpack full of stationery and personal care supplies once a year.
“The Backpack Project believes that education is a basic human right, not a privilege, and that health is a key factor determining the success of a child’s development,” the Project says in its Mission Statement. “The organisation will encourage the pursuit of formal education amongst underprivileged children in the Caribbean by providing basic school supplies and foster a healthy learning environment by providing personal supplies to backpack recipients. The Backpack Project hopes to leverage the resources of its sponsors, donors, volunteers and other stakeholders in a collaborative manner to further its objective of universal childhood education in the Caribbean.”
I find it personally heartening that the Project has not only been able to do its work in Guyana (where Enmore and Kandasammy are from) and Trinidad (where Kandasammy lives), but also extend it to Haiti and the Philippines in two special programmes. The Project sends filled backpacks to students, shipping them in a barrel where necessary. The students, aged five to 18, are identified by educators and through individual requests, and must agree to have their school careers tracked as long as they participate in the Project. So far the Project has given over 100 backpacks to Trinidadian and Guyanese students since it was formed. With the help of the public, they can give more.
The Backpack Project is in the middle of a collection drive, which ends August 18. Members of the public can give either cash or kind: sponsor a filled backpack, which costs about $515, or donate the items needed to fill one. (Cash donors can also give part of the cost of a filled backpack.) The Project still needs for this year: 60 pens, 40 pencil cases, 24 drawing books, 25 bottles of shampoo, 25 bottles of conditioner, 60 notebooks, brown paper, 50 tubes of toothpaste, and 50 toothbrushes.
Kandasammy said in the organisation’s December 2011 newsletter, “Nothing quite prepares you for the joy on the children’s faces when they see the bags with their names on [them]. The warm unexpected hugs received from the students of Rose Hill RC took me by surprise. After briefly talking to the students about their classes and their goals for the year… I walked out of Rose Hill RC more determined than ever that we must fulfil our promise to continue to sponsor all of our kids and to expand our programme.”
In this region so fraught with inequity, poverty and poor governance, it is easy to throw one’s hands up and surrender to the apathy of selfishness, doing for oneself and ignoring others’ problems. It is much harder to engage with those problems, to sit and consider how one can actually make a difference in the world in which we live, and particularly the country we inhabit. It is refreshing to encounter people who try to change things for the better. The Backpack Project is one ogranisation of a group of young people who are doing just that. Join them.
To give to The Backpack Project, a registered not-for-profit company, go to: www.backpackproject.ca or email email@example.com. You can also call Michelle Kandasammy at 781-4034 or Karelle Clark at 497-4847.
[This appeared in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian as my column for July 10, 2012.]