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Children in NYC shelters get school supplies

Gemstain Senghor empties the contents of his newly

Gemstain Senghor empties the contents of his newly donated backpack at Volunteers of America facility on Wednesday in Manhattan. Operation Backpack provides backpacks filled with school supplies to homeless children living in shelters. (July 24, 2013) Credit: Charles Eckert

A book, a rainbow color pack of markers, scissors and drawing paper are all 7-year-old Gemstain Senghor needs to light up his world.

Named "master of mathematics" and a "bookworm" in his third-grade class, Gemstain is thriving despite living in a Manhattan shelter for two years.

Gemstain is one of thousands of children living in homeless shelters who will receive backpacks stuffed with school supplies donated by corporations and individuals next month. They'll be distributed by Volunteers of America-Greater New York.

About 20,000 children live in shelters across the city, according to the New York City Department of Homeless Services.

The nonprofit volunteer group, which organizes the annual Sidewalk Santa program that raises money for holiday food vouchers, is hoping to receive at least 15,000 school bags in its Operation Backpack drive this year for students through high school.

Individuals can donate backpacks and school supplies at Duane Reade stores until Aug. 7.

To kick off the drive, Gemstain received a Marvel comics "Avengers" backpack loaded with composition notebooks, pencils, sharpeners, loose-leaf paper, folders, paint, paintbrushes, glue and hand sanitizer.

Smiling from to ear to ear, Gemstain said he loves school "because I learn."

The eyes of Gemstain's mother, Elizabeth Senghor, welled up with tears yesterday as her son piled his new school supplies on a table at the volunteer group's Upper West Side office.

"Thank God for Jimmy," said Senghor, using her son's American nickname. "He is my everything. My whole world. I am blessed."

A self-employed seamstress and upholsterer from Ghana, Senghor and her son were left homeless when a fire destroyed their Bronx apartment two years ago.

Since then, they have been living at the Regent Family Residence in upper Manhattan. She was given a sewing machine and a small workspace at a nearby church.

"The work is not enough, but I keep praying. I wake up in the morning thanking God for the beautiful sunshine and that I am breathing," she said.

This is the 10th year for Operation Backpack, said Rachel Weinstein, vice president and chief development officer at the volunteer group.

"This is important because it helps break the generational cycle of poverty by getting kids excited about school, which keeps them in school," Weinstein said.

Weinstein said organization leaders hope to receive enough backpacks this year to help the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, which lost about 1,000 donated backpacks during superstorm Sandy.

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