Not being able to afford something as simple as a pencil, jotter or the clothes to go to school in can stop some children across the world getting an education, which is why the charity Mary’s Meals came up with the Backpack Project as a companion to its feeding programmes.
“It was born out of us noticing that a major barrier to making education work for children was a basic lack of items such as pens, pencils, rubbers, tennis balls, toothpaste; things that people here take for granted. These educational materials just aren’t there in many of the countries we work in,” says Daniel Adams, Mary’s Meals head of fundraising.
“I go out to schools here to tell them about the Backpack Project and all the children are sitting with these things in front of them. They’re awestruck that there are children who don’t have them,” he says.
Since 2004 the charity has handed out 370,000 backpacks, the majority in Malawi.
This year alone 60,000 have been shipped out to children in need, all stuffed by schools, clubs and community groups.
Each one contains a notepad, pencil, pens, crayons, rubber, ruler, sharpener, pencil case, towel, shorts/skirt or dress, T-shirt, sandals or flip-flops, tennis ball, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste and a spoon.
“When we hand them out it’s like Christmas morning. These are children who never get presents or anything new and suddenly they have a backpack full of exciting things. Simple things like toothpaste and toothbrushes are held aloft like the European Cup,” says Mr Adams.
It is at the Mary’s Meals warehouse in Glasgow that backpacks from all over the UK and Ireland, Germany and Austria are sorted.
Food items, mainly chocolate, are removed, because of customs regulations, and extra items added to ensure they are all the same.
“Children like to add something of their own, a favourite pen or T-shirt. The other lovely thing people do is stick in a little note that says ‘I hope you love this’ and sign off with their name and age,” he says.
“They like to think that a wee kid in Africa will have their team’s T-shirt, or T-shirt they’ve loved. Like the backpacks, they don’t have to be brand new, just clean.”
This year, The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday have teamed up with the charity for our Christmas appeal and with just £10.70 being enough to feed a child in school every day for a year, it’s simple to click and donate.
However, there are other groups that like to make a contribution in a more tangible way.
“Often people like to touch the aid that they give. Filling a backpack, they know it’s going with 6,000 others in a container across the world. We receive a lot of pens and notepads from the general public and organisations – David Cameron donated Downing Street pens – but people are very good at providing full backpacks,” says Mr Adams.
“When they’re filled, we’ll send out a van if there are quite a few, or people can bring them to our offices or shops [currently in Lochgilphead, Oban, Innerleithen, Duke Street, Glasgow, Barrhead and Dunblane]. Just get in touch with Mary’s Meals and we’ll let you know how to get it to us,” he says.
While Mary’s Meals preserves anonymity therefore contributors will not get a reply, Mr Adams is keen to make sure the children understand that it is not Mary’s Meals staff who are donating the backpack and contents.
“We like them to know it’s from people on the other side of the world – that it’s with love from say, Eilidh, in Scotland,” he says.
“It would be great to be able to give every child receiving Mary’s Meals a backpack.”
St Peter’s Primary School in Edinburgh’s Morningside is just one of the schools which has been filling backpacks for Mary’s Meals, with the 470 primary and nursery children all getting involved.
“We do it every year, sending around 250 backpacks,” says primary six teacher Julia McGuire.
“At first they wondered why someone would need a towel or notebook, but now they know the background, know how fortunate they are and love doing it.
“The impact the Mary’s Meals project has had on the learning of children here is immense and obviously that’s multiplied for the children they’re helping.”
• You can make a difference. To give online go to www.marysmeals.org.uk