In the state of Illinois, more than 1,200,000 children live in low income households. Nearly 50% of those children live below the poverty line. These statistics were shocking to Brother Matthew Kurtzman (Illinois, 1983), who wanted to make a difference in the lives of these kids. His goal was to address a fundamental problem and crisis across the country: our children’s education. He helped start Back 2 School Illinois (B2SI), a nonprofit that has distributed more than 5.7 million school supplies to 192,000 underprivileged children.
“Low-income families sometimes have to make the decision on whether to pay the bill or buy school supplies for their child. Sometimes supplies just don’t make the cut, which makes parents feel terrible and leaves kids believing they don’t deserve to learn.”
Brother Kurtzman has always supported getting a good education and realizes the challenges families face not being able to afford school supplies. That’s why he worked with the Community Currency Exchange Association (CCEA) of Illinois to develop the program. “In our first year, I remember my parents helping me fill up two shopping carts with school supplies at Target. We built about 175 backpacks out of the YMCA in Chicago and donated the kits to those in need.” The Currency Exchange was responsible for providing funding and volunteers in the organization’s early years, their help gave him the support he needed to grow the program. Eventually, CCEA asked him to help run the day-to-day operations of Back 2 School Illinois. “The more I did volunteer work for nonprofits, the more I felt it was my calling. I wanted to focus my energy on helping others.”
The organization has two programs: College Scholarship and B2SI Free School Supplies. College scholarships give money to high school seniors in need and B2SI is their base program that provides to kids from preschool through high school with their signature Back 2 School kits. “We have four different kits based on the grade the child is in. Each kit has approximately 30 of the core school supplies needed to succeed in the classroom. Last year we made more than 34,200 kits which is about one million school supplies.” They work with distribution partners like the YMCA. Boys & Girls Club, JCC and more to give out the supplies. They are also testing a third program that focuses on teaching financial literacy.
Out of every organization pitching in, he finds himself most pleased by the help of his Delta (University of Illinois) brothers of AEPi. “We do build-a-kit programs and many of the brothers have participated in this with their companies. One of the great joys I’ve had over the last few years is reconnecting with my brothers.”
Eventually, he wants to supply all 1.2 million low-income children in Illinois with supplies. “We have a long way to go. A huge part of the program is the self-esteem component. We’re trying to remove the stigma and embarrassment a child may feel when having to ask for supplies from a fellow classmate or teacher.” If there’s one thing he has noticed, it’s that teachers don’t get enough credit for the help they give their students. “Teachers spend a fair amount of money out of their own pocket for students who don’t have supplies. If we’re going to invest in anything, I believe education has the greatest return on investment.”
“The demand may far outweigh the supply, but that doesn’t deter me from working around the clock. Sometimes it’s a donation from Back 2 School Illinois that lets a child know there is someone out there rooting for them.”
Find out how you can help a child in need on the Back 2 School Illinois website.