HCEF volunteers

Last year, when NEXTpittsburgh covered the backpack drive for the Homeless Children’s Education Fund, readers were shocked to learn that in Allegheny County 3,000 youths (up to 21 years old) are experiencing homelessness or unstable living situations. Many asked what they could do to help.

The event returned this year: On Friday, August 19, volunteers from HCEF and UPMC Health Plan gathered to load more than 2,000 donated backpacks, filled with notebooks, folders, flash drives and other school supplies, onto school buses. The backpacks will then go to young students living in the 27 area homeless shelters served by HCEF.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Melissa Farabaugh Girty, Chief of Staff for PA Senator Randy Vulakovich, helped with the loading. Also volunteering were ateenage HCEF ambassadors from both city and suburban high schools.

UPMC Health Plan and the Canonsburg-based roofing and flooring company CentiMark sponsored the drive.

HCEF executive director Bill Wolfe credits public support with making programs like this possible.

A Bright Horizons volunteer drops off donated backpacks. Image courtesy of HCEF.
A Bright Horizons volunteer drops off donated backpacks. Image courtesy of HCEF.

“We are a private nonprofit and we get no stream of federal money, so everything we do for these children is supported by the community, by businesses and by individuals,” says Wolfe. “I’m always impressed by how generous this community is and how giving the people are in corporations.”

As the number of homeless children in the area grows, the services provided by organizations like HCEF are becoming more essential. In 2014, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services estimated that 1,800 local school-age children lacked stable homes. Since then, that number has increased by 60 percent.

While the backpacks are a promising start, Wolfe points out that the need for school supplies doesn’t end with the first day of school.

“During the course of a school year, those shelters will come to us because they have a new family coming and they need school supplies,” says Wolfe. “Not everybody who experiences homelessness in the upcoming year will be homeless as of this Friday. So we need constant donations and supplies coming.”

Want to help? Visit the Get Involved page on HCEF’s website to learn about volunteering and other ways to help throughout the year, including going to homeless shelters to assist kids with homework.

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.