More than 500 backpacks full of supplies readied for incoming Afghan refugee students

Volunteers stuff backpacks with school supplies for incoming Afghan refugee children in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.

Volunteers stuff backpacks with school supplies for incoming Afghan refugee children in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. (Ashley Fredde,

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SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake Federation of Teachers purchased and filled 546 backpacks with school supplies for Afghan students that will soon be filling classrooms across the state in hopes that it will bring "a sense of belonging."

A group of approximately 30 volunteers from chapters of the American Federation of Teachers across the Wasatch Front, the surrounding community and school districts gathered Tuesday to fill the backpacks.

Among volunteers was Salt Lake City Council District 1 candidate Blake Perez, who said he learned of the event while knocking on doors. Perez came across a family in the neighborhood who was helping a refugee family.

"That just kind of was a sign for me to come out and do this and help out," Perez said.

The effort began when Nadia Rockwell, the vice president of Salt Lake Federation of Teachers, applied for a $25,000 grant offered to the chapters by the national union. The American Federation of Teachers executive board allocated money that would have been used for travel during the COVID-19 pandemic as grant money for projects that would make children welcome coming back to school.

"I thought if kids had the supplies they need to go back to school, I think they would feel better. Salt Lake City School District does do a really good job of making sure kids have what they need in the classroom, but I think it's an extra step for the kids to be able to have it at their own house," Rockwell said.

Once the chapter was granted the money, leaders quickly requested a wishlist from the school district's refugee coordinator. With a list of items in hand, chapter members purchased the items and began to compile them in backpacks to be delivered in the next week. Every refugee student in Salt Lake City School District will be provided with a backpack, and 150 students at the Utah International Charter School will receive one as well.

Backpacks were filled for both elementary and secondary school students, with a variety of items for each. Pencils, erasers, highlighters, binders, paper, colored pencils, crayons and masks were placed into backpacks, but one item excited Rockwell the most: scientific calculators for students in sixth to 12th grade.

"I just look at what I had as a student, and my parents did provide backpacks and calculators and anything I needed, and I was successful. As a teacher in Salt Lake School District, I've seen kids who don't have all those things, and I think sometimes it limits them," Rockwell said.

While the district works to help provide necessities in the classroom, Rockwell thought providing students with their own supplies could aid in the student's success. Additionally, she thought the supplies could show students "they're important and valued in our community."


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