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When Erlette Upshaw, executive director for Coos Elderly Services, and Dolly England, OHA Community Engagement program manager, were talking, Dolly mentioned that it would be cool to do a back-to-school initiative in Coos Bay. Dolly mentioned the comics, Beating Covid, that Northwest Disability Support had created to educate children and adults about COVID-19.

Upshaw placed an order for 4,000 comics in English and another 1,000 in Spanish. But what to do with the comics?

“Ding, ding, ding!” said Upshaw. “Backpacks.”

Upshaw got to work and ordered 4,000 backpacks from Amazon because the order was too big for their usual swag company. Then she started gathering supplies.

“I was ordering school supplies, cleaning out whatever our local Walmart had and our local Staples,” said Upshaw. “So, I think I made maybe three or four trips in like two months to get supplies. Each time I went in there it was like they knew my name.”

And people wanted to help. A couple of churches, individuals and a doctor’s office all donated money to support the event. Another group volunteered to co-sponsor their next event. Volunteers from the church stuffed the backpacks two Wednesdays in a row.

“I was in Walmart a couple of times getting all the supplies, and I should have gotten pictures of that,” said Upshaw. “That was hilarious. Just hilarious. I had three shopping carts, and Walmart had one of those big carts with shelves on them and it was full. They were wheeling it around and putting things on it.

“Walmart gave us a discount, but while I was there a couple of times people came up asking what I was doing, and they would hand me money because they wanted to donate.”

On Aug. 28, they were ready to hold the backpack giveaway at the mall. They had determined it should be a drive-through event since there was a COVID-19 surge in Coos Bay. The event was set to start at 9 a.m. and several volunteers started setting up cones at 7:30.

One family was so enthusiastic that they were already waiting.

“And that gentleman says, ‘well while I’m waiting, I might as well help you guys unload,’” said Upshaw. “So that community member got out and was helping us unload. And I’d say before 8 o’clock we already had like six other cars parked behind him waiting in line.”

Grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles all brought kids to pick out new backpacks. In total, 1,000 backpacks were handed out. Kids were excited to pick out their own backpacks, and even more excited to see what was in them. Besides the usual school supplies, each pack had a comic book and personal protective equipment. Scientific calculators were even available for high schoolers.

During the event, families also got to eat free hot dogs and chips from a local food cart, and they received free tickets for popcorn and beverages at a local arcade.

Across the parking lot was a Safeway Pharmacy available for walk-in vaccination as well. Upshaw wasn’t sure how many folks got vaccinated, but she was sure of one thing — she saw a lot of smiles that day.

To make sure the remaining backpacks get put to good use, they will be offered to smaller schools in local churches and surrounding communities in Coos County. Some will be held back for another event over the winter break.

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