Blessings await 700 children at 2023 Backpack Extravaganza

Published 8:59 am Wednesday, July 19, 2023

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LAPLACE- Free backpacks, school supplies and hygiene kits will be given to the first 700 children during Blessed to Be a Blessing’s annual Backpack Extravaganza. This year’s drive thru event will take place from 8:30 to 11 a.m. or until all supplies are gone Saturday, July 22 at the St. John Community Center, located at 2900 Highway 51 in LaPlace.

The first 200 families will additionally receive a $25 gift card, limit one per car. All children will receive a healthy Subway meal sponsored by St. John the Baptist Parish Public Schools, and families will also have access to free child safety seat installations courtesy of Louisiana State Police.

Each year, Blessed to Be a Blessing founder Eliza Eugene sees herself reflected in the eyes of the children who attend the event.

“I remember like it was yesterday. I was that little girl, growing up with a very hard-working single parent who lived paycheck to paycheck,” Eugene said. “My mom was able to grow, leave public housing, become a homeowner, and accomplish all of those things because of resources like this.”

The annual Backpack Extravaganza is one of the largest collaborations in St. John the Baptist Parish. Each year, more than 200 volunteers from numerous community organizations unite to build a brighter future for local children.
“It’s a blessing, after 20 years of having this nonprofit, to see the fruits of our labor,” Eugene said. “We are a 100% volunteer organization. We come together to support our scholars and to give them the tools they need to be successful because we know that if a child is not properly prepared for school, the chances are a lot higher that child will end up in the criminal justice system. We want children to be prepared and excited about learning.”

Blessed to Be a Blessing has also held school supply distributions in St. Charles Parish, Houston, and St. Croix, Virgin Islands. Industry partners such as Cargill, Marathon Petroleum and Nalco Water are consistent supporters of the St. John Parish event.

Cargill representative Natasha Bates has been by Eugene’s side for countless events, distributing school supplies, hot meals in the wake of storms, and donations to area foster children. The company enjoys helping communities thrive through hands-on service, especially when it benefits children or the elderly.

Michael Henschen, vice president of refining at Marathon Petroleum’s Garyville refinery, shared a similar commitment to the community.

“At Marathon Petroleum, our community investment work is centered around strengthening communities,” he said. “For St. John the Baptist Parish, one way we can do this currently is by supporting the annual Backpack Extravaganza, which helps address near-term needs of local students so that their focus can remain on learning.”

Among the service organizations lending a helping hand at the Backpack Extravaganza is the Phi Iota Iota Chapter of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. Chapter President Stanford Williams said the Omegas will pack bags in advance of the event alongside student volunteers from East St. John High School. Members will also assist with traffic control and passing out supplies during the event.

The Phi Iota Iota Chapter supports the youth throughout the years with a mentorship program  middle school and high school students as well as Thanksgiving and Christmas drives. Soon, the chapter will expand to offer reading programs at local elementary schools, living out the motto, “Lifting as we climb.”

“The organization is community oriented, and we do a lot of our work in the three River Parishes in an effort to uplift those communities and to help young men see an example of who they may aspire to be one day. We want them to see how an Omega man carries himself and how we work in the community to build the community and help others,” Williams said.

Other community partners participating in the 2023 Backpack Extravaganza include the St. John Parish Department of Community Services, the St. John Parish Sheriff’s Office, the St. John Parish District Attorney’s Office, the St. John Parish Council, the St. John Assessor’s Office, Men of Our Community, Total Choice Federal Credit Union, the Rotary Club, State Representative Randal Gaines, the River Region Chamber of Commerce, Louisiana Federal Credit Union, Raising Cane’s, Entergy, GRACE, and Pannu Enterprises.

St. John United Way is another consistent partner. With new ALICE report data showing that 47% of St. John Parish households earn below the rising cost of living, St. John United Way Director Dolores Montz has expressed a commitment to ensure quality of life for families through food security and educational resources.

Eugene said inflation has underscored the need for events like the Backpack Extravaganza.

“Today, it’s challenging whether you are single or married with two parents in the household,” she said. “We want to do whatever we can to assist the residents in St. John Parish.”