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Project Backpack: Children Help Katrina Victims

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Government agencies and private charities and corporations are looking for ways to help survivors of Hurricane Katrina. So are many children. NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH reporting:

Last week, the Kantor girls were glued to their TV. High school freshman Jackie and her little sister, Melissa, were trying to explain the calamity to their littler sister, Jenna. They decided to draw some pictures.

JACKIE KANTOR: We drew Katrina with rain, and we drew a little...

MELISSA KANTOR and J. KANTOR: (In unison) ...helicopter...

J. KANTOR: ...with a smiley face and ears and a long rope coming down to save someone. Below it is this toxic soup, and then directly below, it says `backpacks.'

SCHALCH: The idea of sending backpacks to kids displaced by the hurricane came to Jackie in the middle of the night.

J. KANTOR: More than just sending out bags, like, you know, plastic bags or grocery bags full of supplies and full of things, coloring books, things to make them feel better, backpacks can also become sort of a home for them. It's really going to make them feel like they have something of their own, when they've lost everything.

SCHALCH: The girls' dad, Steve, sent out a few e-mails, and together they designed a Web page telling people how to participate.

J. KANTOR: We should have...

M. KANTOR: And like...

J. KANTOR: ...definitely have a page for kids, have a page for volunteers, a page for, like, what we're doing, a page for backpacks and, like, how to make them. Maybe that could combine with the page for kids.

Mr. STEVE KANTOR: OK. All right. Sounds good.

SCHALCH: And Project Backpack took off. The Kantors heard from hundreds of parents and kids in Bethesda, Maryland, where they live, and then from people all over the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. More than 2,000 backpacks have already come in. Emily Seibel(ph) and her little sister, Caroline(ph), have been running around their house, collecting things to load into their packs. Some are new, some are just slightly used.

CAROLINE SEIBEL: How about, like, this octopus?

EMILY SEIBEL: For the younger kids?

C. SEIBEL: Yeah.

E. SEIBEL: Yeah. Well, we'll do this one for the younger kids.

C. SEIBEL: Pink, OK.

E. SEIBEL: 'Cause pink, yeah.

(Soundbite of zipper)

E. SEIBEL: Look at this. I think they'd really like that.

SCHALCH: They grab a pink squishy ball and race downstairs. Second-grader Ben Goodfriend(ph) and his little brother have their selections just about ready. They're including a lot of school supplies.

BEN GOODFRIEND: Colored pencils, markers, two regular pencils.

Unidentified Boy: And a kaleidoscope.

GOODFRIEND: A pad, and $2. That's my allowance.

SCHALCH: Ben says he's been upset by some of the pictures he's seen in the paper.

GOODFRIEND: Well, it would be hard for them in a sports stadium and not have your own houses, not be able to sleep in a real bed.

SCHALCH: Ben leans way across the table and picks up a drawing of a field with grass in it and a blue sky.

GOODFRIEND: It's a card that says, `I hope everything turns out OK.'

SCHALCH: But Ben says he knows some kids have lost everything, even their parents. It's a lot of sadness for a second-grader to absorb, but kids taking part in Project Backpack say being able to pack and send off backpacks is making them feel a little better.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kathleen Schalch
Kathleen Schalch is a general assignment reporter on NPR's national desk. Her coverage can be heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.