FLINT, Mich. – A nonprofit group is giving backpacks filled with school supplies to all 5,500 students in Flint's public school district, the latest philanthropic effort aimed at helping the city dealing with the aftermath of a lead-tainted water crisis.
Minneapolis-based Kids In Need Foundation began making the donations Tuesday morning during an assembly at Freeman Elementary School. More than 200 students from pre-kindergarten through sixth grade attended.
From the auditorium stage, Dave Smith, executive director of Kids In Need, told the children they would "get a surprise today," then led them in a countdown from 10. Many of the students screamed out in excitement when a curtain concealing the surprise gifts was pulled back.
The children walked on stage and were handed their backpacks. When they returned to their seats, they excitedly opened up their packs and pulled out crayons, glue sticks, notebooks, folders, rulers, pencils and other items — around 20 items in all.
"I liked it, because I won't have to ask for a pencil from the teacher because I have my own," said sixth-grader Delmarco Person.
Most schools in Flint don't get started until after Labor Day, so Kids In Need plans to ship the remaining backpacks to the city in time for them to be distributed next week to the remaining 5,000-plus students in Flint Community Schools.
"It's an area that's been economically challenged anyway, and then with the water crisis on top of that, we knew there was lots of issues for all the families," Smith said. "And this was one way of getting school supplies to them — an issue that they didn't have to worry about when the kids went back to class."
Flint was under state financial oversight when it switched in 2014 from the Detroit water system to the Flint River to save money. But corrosion controls were not added to the river water, which caused lead to leach from old pipes into homes and businesses. Tests later found elevated lead levels in some children. The city since has returned to Detroit's water system.
Charitable giving has exploded in Flint since the water crisis became nationally known early this year. Groups and individuals have sent gifts of money and bottled water. Earlier this month, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation announced it was giving $7.1 million to nonprofits and organizations supporting efforts to help city residents.
Kids In Need Foundation partnered with rapper Eminem's Marshall Mathers Foundation to make the Flint backpack giveaway a reality.
Smith, who has been giving away hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of school supplies to kids across the U.S. for 20 years, marveled Tuesday at something he had never experienced at a ceremony like this one.
A first-grade student had pulled out one of the sticky notes from a backpack and scrawled her name and the words "thank you" on one of them.
Asked later about why she wrote the note, Damaria Malone said simply: "Because it was nice."