Lisa Gutkin is a mother of four, so she is no stranger to the back-to-school craze that takes place every summer. On top of shopping for her own children, she organizes an annual event that fills the backpacks of more than 65 children affiliated with Friendship Circle (FC), a resource for families who have children with special needs.
Her Backpacks & Brunch program started seven years ago with just a couple of friends getting together in Gutkin’s home to assemble backpacks and supplies, followed by brunch. The event has grown, with approximately 20 mothers participating last year. This year’s event will be held July 27.
“We’re creating this community feeling where it’s not just moms doing mitzvahs, but children are doing mitzvahs and doing them together with their family,” Gutkin said, referring to children who accompany their mothers in the backpack and school supply shopping.
The parents submit a list of supplies that their children need for school to FC, including details such as favorite colors, characters, and sports teams, to create a personal touch. So far 44 children are registered to participate.
FC assigns every volunteer at least one supply list with which they can shop for their child’s or children’s specific needs and interests. They also fill the backpacks with add-on gifts such as stuffed animals, lunchboxes, keychains, and small trinkets.
Toba Grossbaum, executive director of FC, said Gutkin goes “above and beyond” to make Backpacks & Brunch a success.
“I wish everyone could see the pure joy and excitement on the children’s faces when they get their backpack at Allie’s Summer Camp,” Grossbaum said, referring to the FC day camp named for Allison Rosenfield, a resident of Short Hills who died at age 8 from complications related to cerebral palsy.
The idea for Backpacks & Brunch came to Gutkin when she was a volunteer at Allie’s Camp and wondered how she could do more to help. Taking inspiration from a charity event that provided school supplies for needy children, Gutkin realized that for many FC families, buying school supplies may not be a financial burden, but it can be a complicated chore.
“The idea was to alleviate one errand from the parents,” said Gutkin. “It’s not for monetary reasons as much as it is to give parents a bit of a break. They have a very hard life and the most simple things that we take for granted, like school supply shopping which could be fun and an activity with your child, becomes more chaotic for somebody who has a child with special needs.”
She was drawn to FC because of her uncle with special needs. “When I saw what FC was doing, my thought was how amazing this would’ve been if my bubbe had an organization like this when she was raising my uncle.”
Gutkin’s grandmother received very little support from her community. “She was actually told to take him out of yeshiva and not have him in the general community,” she said. “She had to just put him in a home where he was somewhat secluded from the family. My grandparents, my bubbe and zeyde, would bring him out for the chagim [holidays] to see us, but there wasn’t like this focus on trying to integrate him into our lives or have an understanding of what his life was like. It was no fault of hers, it was just the generation that she grew up in.”
FC tries to enrich the lives of families that have children with special needs, which is why Gutkin supports this organization year after year.
“I really feel like FC allows these parents and this generation to understand that they can be a part of our daily life and they can be a part of our family life,” she said. “My involvement with FC is really just to support this cause that is trying so hard not to put people where my bubbe was, which was a place of embarrassment and almost shunning away her son because it wasn’t an acceptable thing.”
At the Backpacks & Brunch event volunteers will also be assembling “Shabbat in a Box”; boxes packed with supplies for Shabbat, such as electric candles, two challahs, spices, a sweet treat, and more, and then delivered to patients and their families in local hospitals. True to its name, the program concludes with a kosher brunch.
Anyone who wishes to participate but is unable to attend the event should contact Lisa Gutkin, lisaTgutkin@gmail.com, to receive a child’s school supply list and further instructions.