Stephen’s Backpacks began with one child’s compassion
by Laureen F. Guenther
Stephen’s Backpacks Society, based in Airdrie, has provided Back-to-School backpacks and Christmas backpacks to 61,000 needy children since December 2006. They’ve also provided 15,000 pairs of new running shoes for children going back to school and furnished apartment homes for 32 formerly-homeless families.
Last year alone, working through 47 agencies and communities, the organization donated 6,000 backpacks to children from birth to 18 years of age. In 2018, the Society also expanded into Regina and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
All of it started with a little boy named Stephen McPhee. In December 2006, five-year-old Stephen heard his parents discussing a newspaper story about a man experiencing homelessness, his mother Nancy McPhee wrote in an email.
“Our son playing in the other room came in and asked a question that would change our lives forever,” she said. “‘Are there kids on the street, Mommy?’”
Nancy McPhee told her son, “Yes, Stephen, unfortunately there are children without homes.”
Stephen said, “Mommy, I need to help them!” When his mom asked how he wanted to help, he needed to think about it. A few weeks later, he said, “I know what I want to do, Mommy. I want to make packbacks!”
Though he was so young he couldn’t even say the word, Stephen was determined to give backpacks to children in need.
Even more remarkable is that, in 2005, Stephen had been diagnosed with PDD-NOS, on the autism spectrum.
“This behaviour of wanting to reach out and help wasn’t really a characteristic of children on the (autism) spectrum,” Nancy McPhee wrote in her email.
The McPhee family purchased 15 backpacks and “filled them to overflowing with all sorts of wonderful items,” she said. On Christmas Eve, they delivered the backpacks to Inn from the Cold, a local agency serving families experiencing homelessness.
“We felt great as a family that this was a fun thing to do at this time of year,” said Nancy McPhee. And they thought that was all. But in November 2007, Stephen asked his parents if children still lived on the street, and his mother again said, yes, there were.
Stephen said, “I’ll need to make bigger packpacks.”
A local journalist interviewed Stephen who said he wanted to fill 150 backpacks.
His mom said, “Stephen, that is a lot of backpacks. We only made 15 last year.”
And Stephen answered, “Mommy, you need to dream out loud!”
“The newspaper article was printed, and our doorbell did not stop ringing,” Nancy McPhee said in the email.
In total, people donated 265 backpacks and the items to fill them. Cardinal Buses donated a school bus to deliver them to a shelter for homeless families.
“This was a Christmas we will never forget,” Nancy McPhee said. “We will never forget the looks on the faces of the children at the shelter, with eyes as big as saucers as they lined up to get their special gift of love from a little boy who could not even pronounce the word backpack, but certainly knew how to fill it with hope and love.”
In 2008, Stephen’s Backpacks became a Society and then a National Registered Charity. Today, the agency has four major programs: Back to School Backpacks, Christmas Backpacks, Footprints (shoes for back to school), and Project Hope, furnishing families’ apartments.
Stephen, now 17, has been awarded by Alberta’s Greatest Kids, Leader of Tomorrow, Everyday Heroes, Stars of Alberta, Queen’s Jubilee Award and Youth Philanthropist.
“Stephen continues to fire the same passion each year to help even more children,” said Nancy McPhee. “I don’t believe he ever thinks about himself or how big a change he has made. He is just determined to keep doing this until every child has their own bed to sleep in and their own home.”
To volunteer, donate or learn more about Stephen’s Backpacks, see www.stephensbackpacks.com.