Gianna has big plans for sixth grade: Work hard, make friends, focus on what matters and keep striving toward her goal of becoming an artist.
But before any of that can happen, the 11-year-old New Yorker first needed to figure out how she could get the supplies needed to kick off her school year.
“I need two black notebooks for ELA, two green notebooks for science, two blue notebooks for social studies and two red [notebooks for math], one yellow performing arts folder, one purple,” Gianna said, reading from an extensive supply list provided by her school.
And she was only getting started.
The middle schooler went on to list a bevy of additional folders, pencils, pens and highlighters required, on top of the pencil sharpener and USB drive listed by school officials as necessary. In addition, she would need a scientific calculator and dictionary for home.
“That’s a lot,” she said. “I know me and my mom don't have a lot of money, and she just bought me new school clothes because we no longer have uniforms.”
Her concerns were unfortunately not unique.
Gianna is one of the more than 20,000 children living in homeless or domestic violence shelters across New York City who are in need of school supplies.
“I was like, 'How am I going to get all this stuff?'" Gianna said.
As a smile crept across her face, she continued: “Then I remembered: Operation Backpack!”
Founded by Rachel Weinstein, the vice president and chief development and communications officer of Volunteer of America, the community service effort works to make sure every child living in a New York City shelter gets the supplies they need and a new backpack to carry them.
“I was a mother who had just shopped for my own daughter when I joined Volunteers of America many years ago,” Weinstein told InsideEdition.com. “And I was touring the programs and happened to be at a family shelter when children were getting on a school bus from our shelter, and they didn’t have anything.”
She watched, feeling helpless and devastated at the prospect of so many children going to school empty-handed.
“They didn’t have a pencil among them,” she said. “And I had just shopped for my own daughter without thinking twice about getting her everything brand new and beautiful. And so, it was pretty agonizing for me.”
So in 2002, Weinstein founded what would become Operation Backpack.
“These children need to feel really good about themselves and about going to school and feeling like all the other kids, so we want them to have the same quality supplies that their classmates will have,” Weinstein said.
Nearly 200 volunteers came together Thursday at a Manhattan office building to sort through and fill thousands of backpacks for Operation Backpack’s 14th year. About 240 shelters across the city requested assistance in supplying their children with the tools needed to thrive.
“We want them to get into their hands before school starts so they have time to get excited about school and it just relieves them and their families of stress, of worrying about where they’re going to get supplies,” she said.
Each backpack was filled with grade-appropriate supplies determined by examining lists from at least 30 different schools, Weinstein said.
“Everyone can relate to going to school themselves and the anxiety and excitement involved,” she said. “But the cost of a backpack is prohibitive for our families who are homeless. The average cost [of supplies] is $87... $58 for the youngest and $150 for the oldest.”
Taking that worry away from children and their parents makes a huge difference for families getting back on their feet — and was a huge relief for Gianna.
“I was kind of sad at first, because I knew that I wasn’t going to get all of my school supplies,” she said. “But I remembered Operation Backpack, and I got happy again.”
Now, she can focus on what’s most important, her schoolwork and achieving her dreams.
“I want to go to LaGuardia... and then Juilliard,” she said.
She offered words of wisdom for those in similar situations, saying, "Don’t worry about it, because you’re going to get through it."
For more information on Operation Backpack and to learn how to donate or volunteer, click here.