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Saturday, July 20, 2019

It looked like a colorful back-to-school store display. Dozens of backpacks—festooned with cartoon characters or sports teams’ logos—covered a large table and the floor below. Each backpack had a card attached with the name of a child on it.

The bags are gifts to children with special needs who participate in Friendship Circle’s annual Allie’s Summer Camp.

“I wish you could see the joy on the children’s faces when they get their backpacks,” Friendship Circle Executive Director Toba Grossbaum told a group of women who had carefully picked out the needed supplies for 55 children. “It’s like Disneyland for them.”

Dubbed “Backpacks & Brunch,” the program is the brainchild of Lisa Gutkin, who, six years ago, enlisted a few friends to help buy backpacks for Friendship Circle children. The brunch was held around her kitchen table as a way to say thank you.

Like any successful program, though, interest in Backpacks & Brunch grew steadily. With the support of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest and Friendship Circle, the program was opened to a larger group of women and expanded.

Today, each person who participates in the program is given the name of a child and a list of the things they need for school, along with their favorite colors, sports teams, cartoon characters and more—allowing for real personalization of the gift.

For Gutkin, the program is a true labor of love and a way to honor her uncle, whom she has never met and who has special needs.

“I look [at] the Friendship Circle as the future of what my uncle didn’t have,” she told the women who attended the Aug. 10 program. “He didn’t have the opportunities that Friendship Circle kids have. … I do this to honor him.”

Lucy Dybner, 15, and her mother, Mariela, also attended the brunch. The younger Dybner praised the program saying, “It’s an easy way to do a mitzvah. But beyond that, it’s cathartic because it’s an experience everyone has had and can relate to.”

“I have a lot of little siblings, and it felt kind of like I was shopping for them,” Lucy, who is a Friendship Circle volunteer went on to say. “The most fun part was buying pencils and pens and a pencil case because I always wanted them to be shiny and nice, so that’s what we got her. I hope she’ll be happy with them.”

Like the Dybners, many who participated in the program made the school-supply shopping a family affair by enlisting their children in picking out the requested items and sharing in the mitzvah. And sometimes the kids even went beyond the list.

Such was the case of Donna Kritzer’s children, who, she says, “thought it would be cute to buy extra stuff as well, which is what we did.”

Rebecca Fisher of Randolph is thrilled with how the program has grown. “I started with this program when it was in Lisa’s kitchen and it’s a nice progression that we are now in the facility we are helping with.

“[Backpacks & Brunch] is a beautiful thing,” says Fisher. “It empowers us to do something good and involve our kids. There are obstacles we all have to face, and we find the time to do this because it’s important to us.”

By Faygie Holt (Levy)