Publication:

Manawatu Guardian - 2021-11-25

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We’ve got their back

FRONT PAGE

Judith Lacy

Kids carrying large backpacks might look like turtles but imagine if they didn’t have not just a backpack with essentials for school but a home. Palmerston North charity Backpack Outreach, Ipu Mo Te Hauora was founded by Teriria Stephenson in December 2019 to distribute care packages for at-risk children in Manawatu¯. Backpacks are filled with ageappropriate items for children from babies to teens — everything from lunchboxes and drink bottles to a colouring activity, toys and toiletries. Working with Women’s Refuges, emergency housing providers, social workers and teachers, the items are given to children who have been removed from their homes through domestic violence, neglect or poverty. When Stephenson was 4 she was moved from Te Kuiti to Hamilton to Palmerston North by Women’s Refuge. She couldn’t take anything with her so as to avoid an altercation when she left her home one night. “All I had was what I had on me which wasn’t much and then we had to start a new life once we got here.” She remembers how sad and lonely she felt leaving everything behind and moving into a strange, sterile environment with her mother and baby brother. Familiar with similar backpack schemes in other centres, Stephenson’s motivation came after a visit to wha¯nua involved with Love Marlborough who were collecting items for children. “I felt drawn to that because I myself was a child who grew up in Women’s Refuge.” She contacted friends and Backpack Outreach grew. About a year ago Pascal Street Community Trust offered her storage space. The team of five — all volunteers — are Stephenson, her husband, a teacher, a former youth prison worker who now works for Victim Support, and someone who works in temporary accommodation. Stephenson’s husband also had a challenging childhood as his father got cancer resulting in financial struggles for the family. Stephenson has two daughters and one son and juggles two part-time jobs with her other roles. The family attends Salt Church. In 2020, the organisation gave away 300 backpacks and 279 so far this year. Stephenson hopes they can exceed last year’s figure. Her long-term goal is 1000 backpacks a year for Manawatu¯, which she says is closer to the need. The number of children in need is increasing due to poverty and homelessness. “I don’t want [Backpack Outreach] to exist, to be honest. Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t have to?” Stephenson says she is careful how Backpack Outreach presents itself to families as she wants them to accept the help. “I don’t need props, I just do it because I enjoy it and I know how it feels.” She says it’s like Christmas when the kids open their backpacks as they feel special and taken care of. The backpacks and contents are all new and often recipients aren’t used to having new possessions. Stephenson says it’s important the items don’t stand out as being donated or belonging to a poor person as children want to feel normal. A website is being developed in addition to the Facebook page and lawyers are helping with a charities registration application. Backpack Outreach is the Manawatu¯ Guardian’s 2021 Christmas appeal. New backpacks, soft toys, lunch boxes, drink bottles, books, colouring pencils, toothpaste and toothbrushes can be left at our office, 619 Main St, 9am-4pm weekdays.

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