lili-stephens-henry_web.jpgA total of 142 backpacks, two boxes of clothing and one box of personal care products were collected during a drive coordinated by a then Howard University senior to help needy students in three countries. 

LiLi Stephens-Henry, an acting major, used her final semester to launch the project in April on the Howard University campus in Washington, D.C., to collect backpacks and donate them to students in the inner-cities of Washington, D.C., Kingston, Jamaica, and Haiti.

She persuaded Broward College and Florida International University to promote the project through kiosks, posters and e-mail inviting students and staff to donate used and new backpacks.

She also got a corporate partner in FedEx which agreed to ship the backpacks nationally. Home Depot donated boxes to use for the backpacks. Grace Foods International Ltd. underwrote the cost of T-shirts and posters and Dennis Shipping Company in New York shipped the backpacks to Jamaica.

From Jamaica, the boxes designated for Haiti will be shipped to the Ecole Bon Samaritan orphanage.

Stephens-Henry, a New York native of Jamaican and British parents,  created LiLi’s Backpack Project after noticing that at the end of each college academic year, students who live on-campus throw out used clothing, footwear and other items because they do not want the hassle or the costs of shipping them home.

“While on an internship in Jamaica two years ago, I noticed that the price of backpacks was very expensive.  At the end of each academic year, students at Howard University throw out so many items that I thought it would be a good idea to launch a project that would allow students and staff to donate their used backpacks to other students who couldn’t afford one,” Stephens-Henry said.

Her acting classes at Howard were hectic and the best time she could commit to the project was during her last semester at college.  She graduated in May with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Acting.

The project began with a goal of collecting 500 backpacks between April 1 and May 15, with the slogan, “Give Back. Donate a Backpack!”

The Howard University Caribbean Students Association has adopted the project.  HUCSA, most known as CSA, is one of the largest and most diverse student social organizations on the Howard University campus.  CSA is actively involved in student activities promoting cultural awareness and supporting its local community through specially planned events. Members are Caribbean students or students of Caribbean descent.  CSA organizations can be found on many other college campuses throughout the United States. 

Of the backpacks collected, 24 came from Broward College North and Central campuses, while nine came from the FIU Broward Pines campus. Stephens-Henry is planning to deliver those backpacks herself to Denbigh High School in Jamaica on Friday, July 1.

“That’s awesome,” said Paul Felarca, volunteer services coordinator at Broward College North Campus. “I’m very proud of LiLi and her team’s efforts. The leadership she has shown and the initiative it took will definitely be rewarded.”

Heather Andrews, deaf services specialist and interpreter at Broward College Central Campus, added, “I am so proud of our students for their support of this worthwhile project.”

FIU Broward Pines held its backpacks drive during “Stress Free Week” that offered sampling of products, giveaways and massages and allowed for students to drop off any backpacks.

“This is such a wonderful project. Everyone we worked with from LiLi’s Backpack Project and Grace Foods were so courteous and professional,” said Diana Arcentales, student life coordinator at FIU Broward Pines.

Some students found it hard to part with their backpacks and, instead, wanted to donate $5 to the project.

“One of our MBA students suggested that LiLi should also allow students to make monetary donations towards her charity. Then she can research a company that makes backpacks to see if they will sell them to the project at the manufacturer’s sale retail price,” Arcentales said.

Stephens-Henry said she is planning to expand the project to include collection of cash donations, books and school supplies.

The Ecole Bon Samaritan orphanage, one of the beneficiaries of the project, is located in Archaie, Haiti.  It houses 19 residents aged 3 to 21 and, during the day, it is a school for 100 students. Several Howard University students visited the orphanage during this year’s alternative Spring Break.

“The principal at the orphanage says that the students are in need of personal care products, so we made some purchases of sanitary napkins, toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, soap and underwear and included them in the shipment,” said Nykeeba Brown, a member of the Haitian Students Association who was among the backpacks project participants.

Stephens-Henry said while in Jamaica, she will meet with potential donors of personal care products, such as T. Geddes Grant and Kirk Distributors to add to the shipment that will go to Haiti.

Photo: LiLi Stephens-Henry