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Operation Backpack collects school supplies for children in shelters

17 year-old Bakary Diallo with a backpack donated

17 year-old Bakary Diallo with a backpack donated by Volunteers of America on Tuesday, July 29, 2014 in Manhattan. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

New notebooks and pencils to start the school year changed Bakary "Didi" Diallo's outlook on his future while he was living in a shelter with his mother.

"I wasn't a good student. I would get into trouble a lot. I didn't want to read," Diallo, 17, said recently from the Volunteers of America Greater New York headquarters in Manhattan, where he works as an office assistant. "Then someone gives you a new backpack with book supplies and it makes you happy and your self-esteem rises."

The VOA Greater New York is having its annual backpack drive to help children who live in shelters get a fresh start to the school year. The goal this fall is to distribute 19,000 backpacks filled with school supplies to every child in the city's shelter system.

"A new backpack and school supplies can make the difference between a child being excited to go to school and not wanting to go at all," said Rachel Weinstein, VOA vice president and chief development and communication officer. New backpacks and supplies can be donated at every Duane Reade location through Friday. People interested in donating money to the Volunteers of America Greater New York’s Operation Backpack Drive can do so at through the end of August.

Since 1999, the VOA Greater New York, which operates shelters throughout the city, has collected school supplies for homeless children. In 2004, it expanded its effort citywide to include children living in shelters.

Diallo is hoping his story will inspire other kids living in shelters to become better students. He now lives in an apartment in the Bronx with his mother, a nurse's aide.

"I went to a public school where there were fights and you could easily ditch class and where teachers rarely cared," he said. The new book binders, loose-leaf paper, colored pencils and pens with a stapler led him to "study more," he said.

Diallo, who is a striker at the Manhattan Soccer Club and hopes to get a soccer scholarship for college, said "not a lot of the kids in my class could afford school supplies."

Diallo's initiative paid off and he passed a test to attend the Democracy Prep Charter School in Harlem, which gave him new educational challenges.

"Every summer Operation Backpack made me happy and gave me discipline. It changed the way I acted in school as a person," said Diallo, who this fall received college SAT preparatory books from the VOA, which will enroll him in SAT classes.

Diallo is now giving back. He goes to the shelter where he lived as a young boy with his mother to mentor children living there.

"I come in on Fridays just to say hello," he said. "I buy food and check in with the kids to see if they need help with their homework or just want to talk. I tell them not to think negatively and be positive that they have a roof over their head and be grateful."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated how to make monetary donations to the Operation Backpack Drive. It also misstated where Bakary Diallo lives.

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