Shelley Carson and Crystal Houck chatted excitedly, sometimes in unison, as they reminisced about those early days of the Greater Tulsa Association of Realtors Backpacks for Kids event. It’s been 18 years since its start in 2006 when 100 Family & Children’s Services (F&CS) clients receive a personalized backpack to kick off the school year.
Their children, now 23 and 25 years old, also took part in the first event and interacted with other children. “When it started, they were 5 and 7 years old and literally helped the whole way through,” Carson said. “They were just adorable.”
She turns and looks thoughtfully at Houck. “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe it’s lasted this long,” Carson said. “Every year, I thought, ‘We’re doing this again?’ and here we are 18 years later with so much community support.”
At the time, GTAR (Greater Tulsa Association of Realtors) raised $5,000 for the campaign in which each child obtained a backpack filled with a pair of shoes and jeans, a shirt and a package of socks and underwear to start the school year. The group also threw a pizza party so the children and their families could enjoy an evening of food, fun and a magic show by Jungle Jim, who made animal balloons for everyone. In the second year, GTAR provided backpacks for 500 children, and the number of attendees increased yearly.
Carson, co-chair of the GTAR Community Affairs Committee, and Houck, senior program director of F&CS’ Comprehensive Home-Based Parent Support and Training Program (CHBS) said the project is a labor of love, even as they’ve both learned lessons along the way.
“The Tulsa Board of Realtors must have a philanthropy project every year,” Carson said. “The National Association of Realtors tasks them to have a philanthropy arm of their board. It’s part of their charter. As an affiliate member, I joined their committee just to be involved, and I was chair of the community relations committee.”
Carson met Houck’s sister-in-law Charity Wendt through a previous community outreach project, and the decision was made by the committee to do a Tulsa Backpacks for Kids event similar to an Oklahoma City initiative. As the committee consulted with F&CS regarding the needs of area children, Houck said the project became more than just a school supply drive. Every child in the household (school-based or not) is presented with something by the group in order to make everyone feel at ease and valued.
Today, not only is Backpacks for Kids supported by Tulsa area Realtors and local businesses, but sponsors are also a big part of the party. GTAR raises funds through an annual golf tournament and private donations. The event is appointed for F&CS recipients from the Women in Recovery (WIR), Child Abuse and Trauma Services (CATS), CHBS, School-based, Early Childhood and Systems of Care (SOC) programs.
Thanks to an outstanding yearlong fundraising campaign totaling $70,000, the 2023 GTAR Backpacks for Kids event has set a record – 650 children will receive backpacks with new school clothes, shoes, socks, and personal care items like deodorant, a toothbrush, and toothpaste as well as attend a circus-themed party complete with free pizza, ice cream, free haircuts, a photo booth and more. Nearly 60 volunteers gather to assemble the backpacks, and all attend the official party. View more about the GTAR Backpacks for Kids project here.