Five years ago, Scot and Jacqueline Tatelman started a nonprofit summer camp for kids from struggling parts of Brooklyn. As they spent time in those neighborhoods over the next few years, getting to know the kids and learn their stories, one thing stood out: Kids who were headed to camp would get on the bus with their belongings in trash bags. They decided to launch State Bags, a social enterprise that gives backpacks to kids in need.
“We saw a lot of buy-one-give-one companies cropping up all over the place,” Tatelman says. (The most popular example is Tom’s). “But we didn’t see that many that were serving kids here in the States. Since we worked with these kids and saw the need–a really dire need in the neighborhoods we were serving in Brooklyn, we created a company that blended fashion with philanthropy in a different way.”
State Bags uses the funds from selling their backpacks to donate bags at schools, but they were also careful to design a program that went beyond the bag itself. “It was really important to make it about more than just a material donation,” Tatelman explains. “Our experience working with kids living in neighborhoods in need is that just giving them stuff doesn’t really go that far.”
In what they call the “GiveBackPack” program, the company sends a team of speakers into each school. “It’s kind of a dance party blended with an educational workshop blended with a motivational rally,” Tatelman says. “We work with these kids to really engage them in a different way and get them thinking about how they can give back, despite maybe never being asked to because they don’t have that much.”
The speakers–who each grew up in neighborhoods similar to the kids they’re serving, like East Brooklyn and Brownsville–psyche the kids up, and then share personal stories by reaching into their own backpacks for items that have meant something to them in their lives.
One speaker pulled out a pair of glasses that remind him of being bullied in school and called a nerd, and how he stopped studying at the time. “He keeps the glasses to remember how far he’s come,” said Tatelman. For another, the item was a never-sent love letter that reminds him to live without regrets. Then the team ask the students what they have in their own bags.
“It’s incredible the answers that we get–they get it,” says Tatelman. “At our first bag drop, when we weren’t sure how kids would take the whole exercise, one kid stood up and shared a toy that he carries with him everyday to remind him that although he doesn’t have much, and his mom isn’t able to provide in the way she wishes she could, she made a point to buy the toy to show how much she loves him.” Other students, Tatelman says, talk about metaphorical things they carry, like the courage to walk their neighborhood streets.
The rallies wrap up with everyone taking a pledge to a handful of values: acceptance, courage, knowledge, conservation, and health. Once the team feels that every student is genuinely committed–and Tatelman says it’s happened every time they’ve done the program so far–they reveal that they have presents of free bags. Each student gets one, and they’re encouraged to keep thinking about how they can impact the world through a set of badges that can be earned through things like recycling or committing to exercise.
The badges, Tatelman says, have also inspired their customers to take action. “People of all ages are submitting stories telling us how they’re living by our core values, bettering themselves and the world. We’re engaging people in the deep inner cities as well as the really affluent areas too, getting them thinking about how they can can impact the world. That’s our ultimate goal. Not just for kids in underfunded neighborhoods, but people everywhere.”