Teens show kindness is not in short supply with back to school fundraiser

Photo credit: Todd Rowan. Tools for School volunteers packed up more than 1,000 backpacks on Sunday, Aug. 18 at Kensington Furniture in Northfield. The backpacks will be donated to students in need.

When Montana Checkoff’s older sister Lilly was preparing for her bat mitzvah, she chose to start a charity as part of her mitzvah project. What began as little kids running down the beach collecting donations for those in need, has since spiraled into a full-fledged community outreach effort.

Now in Montana’s hands, Tools for School assembles teams of kids to help fundraise for school supplies and backpacks to ensure students in need have supplies to start the school year. On Sunday, Aug. 18, a team of volunteers packed more than 1,000 backpacks in what was their largest fundraiser to date.

Tools for School is run by a teen board of 20 middle and high school students. Together, students from Cherry Hill East, Moorestown Friends School, Eastern Regional High School, Henry C. Beck Middle School and Rosa International Middle School have organized social media campaigns, partnered with corporate sponsors and run a dodgeball tournament to raise funds for the organization. 

In 2016, Tools for School partnered with the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey to become an incorporated nonprofit. Andrew Rowan, teen board past president and a recent graduate of Moorestown Friends School, said the Jewish Federation has helped them to manage donations and guided them as they set their goals for each year. 

The majority of their supplies are purchased through direct donations, but they’ve also raised funds through restaurant fundraisers, corporate sponsors and dodgeball tournaments. Checkoff, who is serving as the current teen board president, said since Tools for School’s founding four years ago, it’s made connections with schools. Each year, it reaches out and asks what’s the highest number of backpacks and supplies you need, and tries to accommodate as many requests as possible. 

Some connections have formed organically. Rowan said, last year, he saw a teacher at McGraw Elementary School in Camden post in a Cherry Hill Facebook group about the local need for school supplies. Rowan connected with the teacher, and they provided enough supplies to equip the entire class. This year, Tools for School made sure there were enough backpacks for nearly every student in the school.

Why school supplies? Checkoff said some families spend up to $500 a year on school supplies, which can mean the difference between having meals for the week or school supplies. So, Tools for School is there to ensure that students go back to school with the supplies they need without compromising spending on other vital needs. 

On a recent Sunday, Tools for School volunteers packed approximately 1,200 bags at the Kensington Furniture warehouse in Northfield. Volunteers formed an assembly line grabbing from a mountain of backpacks and filling them with notebooks, scissors and other supplies, which will be distributed to schools throughout South Jersey and Pennsylvania. 

Rowan, a Cherry Hill resident who’s headed to Northwestern this fall, said there’s something special about the fact that supplies are coming from students to other students. He said all of the board know the feeling of walking into the first day of school with new supplies in hand, and they wanted to give that feeling to others.

“We’re in this together,” Rowan said. 

For Checkoff, a rising Cherry Hill High School East junior, said there’s a lot of hard work that goes into organizing each year’s donations, but when all is said and done, she’s proud of what they’ve accomplished. 

“I like the idea when I go back to school in September, I helped other people go back to school as well,” Checkoff said. 

To reach Tools for School, email toolsforschool@jfedsnj.org.