Group asks for inspiring messages in school supply kits

By Kevin Beese Staff Reporter

A student at Kellman Elementary School in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood receives a free school supply kit. (B2SI photo)

A statewide initiative is looking to give people stuck at home a positive outlet and give low-income youths a boost of encouragement.

Back 2 School Illinois, a Chicago-based nonprofit that has provided tens of thousands of kids from low-income families with free school supplies, has launched a Notes of Inspiration initiative. The project aims to provide a note of encouragement in each Back 2 School kit to inspire and engage recipients.

“We want to let children know that there is someone out there rooting for them,” said Matthew Kurtzman, CEO of Back 2 School Illinois. “We want to give them not only the tools, but the encouragement.”

Kurtzman said kids are put in challenging situations through homelessness, foster care, military deployment and being in a single-parent household. He said youths in those families often do not have the needed school supplies at the start of the school year or when they enter a school system.

“Building self-esteem is a big part of what the kits do,” Kurtzman said. “The supplies are the first part; the notes are the second part.”

The Back 2 School CEO said many companies buy kits in bulk and assemble them as a team-building activity. Some of the firms put notes of encouragement in the kits.

Kurtzman said his organization is looking to expand that effort and have inspirational notes in each kit distributed.

“With the stay-at-home order, this is an opportunity for people who are stuck at home and looking for something to do,” he said. “A lot of people want to help, to get involved. They see nurses, doctors and ambulance drivers putting themselves at risk. So, what can you and I do? We do not have those jobs. This is a great way for individuals to give back and make a difference.”

To participate in the program, individuals can visit and fill out the online Notes of Inspiration form, which asks for their contact information and the number of note cards they’d like to receive in the mail (ranging from 10-30). After doing so, they’ll receive a package from Back 2 School Illinois that includes: blank note cards, instructions, an outer mailing envelope (9-by-12-inch), inner return envelope, return mailing label and a donation envelope (for individuals who want to make a donation).

Kurtzman said notes — and donations — are needed now as the organization’s efforts continue in the wake of the coronavirus.

Kurtzman and Steven Sartin dropped dozens of Back 2 School Illinois kits May 6 at Legacy Charter School in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood. Kurtzman said Back 2 School had already been to nine schools in North Lawndale during the first part of May.

Steven Sartin of Back 2 School Illinois stacks school supply kits inside Legacy Charter School. (Photo by Kevin Beese/Chronicle Media)

“We give out the kits year-round, not just in August,” Kurtzman said.

He noted that youths can need school supplies at any time of the year and Back 2 School Illinois does its best to accommodate.

“So many kids leave school abruptly. They may have had supplies at their old home, but do not have any at their new home,” Kurtzman said. “If they are going to try to do schoolwork at home, they need to have supplies. We serve a lot of low-income, high-risk families.”

The Back 2 School program was launched in 2007 by the Community Currency Exchange Association of Illinois. In 2015, the nonprofit changed its name to Back 2 School Illinois. It is the largest free school-supply program in the state.

Back 2 School has provided more than 260,000 children with their own school supply kit. The organization’s long-term goal is to annually provide the more than 1 million Illinois children from low-income families with the school supplies they need.

In 2018, the organization launched Back 2 School America, aimed at providing Back 2 School kits to children across the United States.

Kurtzman said he expects the need for kits to increase dramatically in the wake of the pandemic.

“People have lost their jobs. They don’t have money in the bank. The numbers will grow significantly,” Kurtzman said. “There are 1.1 million Illinois students in low-income households. I anticipate that will go up significantly. The need is going to be greater than it has ever been.”

Matthew Kurtzman (foreground) and Steven Sartin take Back 2 School Illinois kits into Legacy Charter School in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood. Back 2 School Illinois is seeking notes of inspiration to include in its school supply kits for low-income students. (Photo by Kevin Beese/Chronicle Media)

Kurtzman said that school supplies sometimes just need to be replenished and his agency wants to be able to help — no matter the situation.

“Kids use up supplies. Crayons get broken,” Kurtzman said. “A child can be placed in a new home. He could have been in the foster system and gets adopted in December. He is going into a new school and needs a fresh box of school supplies.”

Back 2 School Illinois distributes most of its kits in the Chicago area, but does serve the entire state. Kurtzman said the organization provides kits to the children of military family at Scott Air Force Base in St. Clair County and Camp Lincoln in Springfield.

He said that note writers can get ideas from information on the Back 2 School Illinois website,

“You can take the quotes we have or use something from a famous author encouraging education,” Kurtzman said. “Or you can just say something like ‘Make the most of the school year,’ ‘Make friends’ or ‘Be good to your teacher.’”

Kurtzman said people can be creative and whimsical with their notes.

“Draw pictures and use stickers if the spirit moves you. Have as much fun as you want,” he said.

He said Back 2 School Illinois provides four different kits, with grade appropriate items. The Back 2 School CEO said the organization will put notes in the appropriate kits.

“If you quote (Geoffrey) Chaucer, that’s probably not going to go into a preschool/kindergarten kit,” Kurtzman joked.