Backpacks as a stepping stone: get back-to-school basics

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Standing in line at Target during back-to-school week, I was astonished to see how much stuff kids need to learn.  At the check out, a mother in front of me, joked with her teenage son, “You better be Einstein after all this.”  They both broke out in laughter– a good respite given the length of the queues that evening.

Having traveled widely, and seen classrooms of all sizes and conditions, it really is striking how much we spend annually on school supplies.  While I may be in favor of a simpler classroom, and less frills, that’s unlikely to happen.  The back-to-school industry amounts to nearly $20 billion.

So what about families who just cannot afford to splurge every August on stationery?  How do they ensure that their kids don’t feel like the odd ball out?

Local civic organizations such as Rotary have been providing free backpacks with school supplies to children of low-income families for years now.  Every fall, they assemble the basics and hand them out a week before school starts.  In Moorpark, this year, the local club handed out about 100 backpacks –  half of which were designated for the Boys and Girls Club school kids.

Such local efforts are always welcome. But they can be hard to scale without sufficient funds.  One company is reshaping back-to-school for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.  Fitmark, a fitness bag brand, started by Mark Samuel in the Bay Area, is partnering with the youth organization to hand out backpacks in communities of need.

The company launched in 2012, after raising $500,000 in funding.  Samuel, though, has aspirations of making Fitmark into a Nike or Jansport-esque brand.  Fitmark, he says, has the power to scale exponentially and turn into a $100 million brand.  Reportedly, the company has already sold  250,000 bags worldwide and is now expanding further in to the European market.

The bags range from $75 to $175 and have already found their way into major sports clubs across the country.  Manufactured mostly in China, with some custom bags produced in the US, they’re designed for fitness folks – yoga practitioners, gym lovers, and outdoorsy individuals.  Samuel started the company because he says, he didn’t see any other brand honing in on fitness bags.  “Most big brands see bags as an accessory.”  Fitmark’s bags come with perks: meal containers, anti-microbial material, insulated pockets, laundry bags, shoe pouches.

For every $100 Fitmark nets through bag sales, it will donate a bag to a Boys and Girls Club.  The project started in Oakland, Fitmark’s backyard.  But it’s grown to target America’s more troubled cities: Philadelphia, Detroit, and South Central LA.

The Detroit Boys and Girls Club coordinator saw kids coming to school with their books and gear in plastic bags.  One homeless mother-son duo were particularly thankful to get a bag, given their limited means, he says.  The success of the program in Detroit has inspired the club to come up with more incentivized programs: kids who perform well, illustrating progress in their studies and extracurriculars, can get a sports bag or a backpack also.

By the end of 2014, Fitmark will have donated 2,000 bags to underprivileged youth.  Why Boys and Girls Club, in particular?  “It was a natural fit.  I wanted to do something for kids specifically,” Samuel says.

The Boys and Girls Club reaches 4 million young people; there are over 4,000 chartered clubs and 1,4000 in schools.  The organization started in 1860 in Connecticut, designed just for boys.  But in 1990, it was re-branded as the Boys and Girls Club of America.

“There’s a lot more to this than the bags.  As a kid, sports gave me confidence, discipline.  I want other kids to be able to have that easily.”

Samuel is aspiring to grow the give-back program to more cities across the US.  “We can do this.  We can change this problem.  This is what drives us,” he says.

This originally appeared in the Ventura County Star.  (Photo credit: Fitmark).

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