Plateau and beyond donates hundreds of backpacks to Afghan refugees

In less than a month, the project pulled together businesses, students and the community at large

For at least one Afghan refugee family, their recent arrival in the Pacific Northwest was met with Plateau gifts: backpacks filled school supplies and an encouraging note.

That’s according to Emelie Coffman at World Relief Seattle, the Kent-based branch of a refugee aid non-profit which has been helping Afghan families resettle in the United States.

“The children were so excited to open their backpacks and go through them, and the dad was very moved, he kept saying ‘we just came here on August ninth, we have nothing,’ ” Coffman said. “For this family in particular, that was their first piece of belongings that the children got when they arrived.”

This family isn’t alone — the Plateau area community and beyond donated nearly 700 backpacks and hand-written notes and more than $15,000 worth of new school supplies to Afghan refugees from preschool to highschool.

The project, which brought together local high schoolers, grocery, office and department stores and ordinary members of the Plateau community and beyond, began only a month ago.

Enumclaw author and attorney Julie Reece-DeMarco, along with her two Enumclaw High School daughters Natalie and Sophia, dreamed up the idea during a car ride in the wake of the Afghanistan refugee crisis that broke out this summer.

Tens of thousands of Afghans are relocating to the United States, and thousands of them will likely make their way to Washington, according to news reports, many with children who will need to enroll in local schools. So the Reece-DeMarco family started the Afghan Refugee Student Backpack Program hoping to provide those kids with school supplies and notes of encouragement as they step into an unfamiliar place.

Earlier this month, they called on the Plateau community to donate backpacks and school supplies by Sept. 18. As hundreds of them started coming in, the DeMarco family found early helpers to write letters and stuff backpacks through the high school’s Interact Club, of which Sophia is the student president.

So the EHS common area became a hive of activity the afternoon of Sept. 20, as members of the Enumclaw High School Interact club, along with several dozen other students and staff wrote notes and filled packs for the Afghan refugees. Students from nearby schools also pitched in to participate.

“It definitely warms your heart,” Enumclaw School District Assistant Director Phil Engebretsen said. “Especially coming out of the pandemic the last year and a half, to have young people willing to serve others, to give up their time, it’s awesome. It’s really what we want Enumclaw, and our Enumclaw community and school district to be all about.”

That back-packing operation came together fairly last-minute, Reece-DeMarco said. After amassing all the supplies by Sept. 18, the crunch was on to get them filled and sent to the incoming families. Interact Club advisor and EHS social studies teacher Will Stuenkel brought a van, a trailer and a bunch of kids to load the backpacks and haul them to the school.

“Our willingness to try to do something provides a vehicle for other people who wanted to do something but didn’t know what to do,” Reece-DeMarco said. “It enabled a community … to unite behind something that went beyond all the other things that divide us.”

Ana Vazquez, a senior at EHS, felt emotional seeing all the backpacks she and her fellow students had prepared. She said she’d been thinking recently about all the children who were “terrified, coming to a new country that makes zero sense to them.”

The turnout that afternoon surprised her: “No one expected this,” Vazquez said.

“The idea of those other children not understanding the world they’re in, and being blamed for it, and having to come here with nothing at all — you just have to do something,” Vazquez said. “My parents are immigrants as well. Hearing their story after all of this — you have to do something.”

Vazquez started each of her welcome notes to the refugees with “Hello friend.”

“A lot of them consisted of me saying: I’m really glad you’re here, I’m glad you made it over here, and I know it has been difficult,’ ” Vazquez said. ” ‘It’s going to be an adventure coming here and being here.’ … And I’d end every letter with: ‘Sincerely, someone who cares for you.’”

In his world history class, Stuenkel has used the both the COVID-19 pandemic and the Afghanistan conflict as examples for students to consider how they live through, and remember, historic moments.

Those high schoolers were born after the 9/11 attacks and onset of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. For many of them, the rush of news from Afghanistan this summer was disorientating.

“They kind of felt like they had been kept in the dark (about) that whole situation there, they had not heard about it at all,” Stuenkel said. “And then all of a sudden … they’re in an important moment of history that they did not know that much about.”

In class, Stuenkel can teach from history books or show news clips, but the news of refugees arriving locally brought that history to life. Then, with the backpack program, Stuenkel was handed “a social studies teacher’s dream.”

“It just had such dramatic influence on kids,” Stuenkel said. “Here they’re watching this current event unfold in real time, in Afghanistan, and here is something they can do … and be a positive influence. … It was just kind of amazing how many students, when they heard about the project, were just really all-in.”

Beyond his gratitude to the DeMarcos and the students who helped back the bags, Stuenkel was struck by how the crisis became a topic of conversation and reflection around school, even among those who didn’t participate.

Ella Schneider, Reece-DeMarco’s niece, is from DuPont and worked with her mom to collect and bring that community’s donations to the effort, which included many backpacks from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

“Everybody was very generous,” said Schneider, who graduated last year from Steilacoom High School.

Helped by volunteers, Coffman picked the backpacks up that afternoon and had them delivered to the World Relief Office by Sept. 23. Fifty of the packs had already been distributed to the Kent School District by then, and the rest will be streaming out over the next six months as refugees continue to arrive and settle, Coffman said.

Coffman, who is the youth and children programs manager at World Relief Seattle, also helps families and children get set up and acclimated to the American school system.

“There are a lot of things to do when you first come here, and it can be overwhelming,” Coffman said.

Even a gift as simple as the backpacks can be “huge” for the incoming families, but the benefits of putting them together extend back into the community too, Coffman said.

“What I really like about what this program did, was bringing awareness to something that some people might not know a lot about,” Coffman said. “It engaged a whole community. … It’s a great feeling.”

For now, they’re considering the backpack program a success, Reece-DeMarco said, but the family plans to keep their eyes and ears open for how they could help next.

“It was just so cool, and it made me so happy and proud,” Natalie said. “Anything we did that was stressful or took time, it was worth it. … The impact it will have will be humongous. I’m just so grateful.”

Sophia said she was “super proud” of how the backpack drive went, and plans to tackle more projects like this with her sister.

“I think given the right tools and guidance, the youth of today can make huge amounts of impact on this world,” she said. “I think that’s one of the things about our generation: How much potential we have in doing good.”

Many local businesses contributed donations large and small to the effort, Julie Reece-DeMarco said, including:

The Bonney Lake Walmart, donating more than 300 backpacks and miscellaneous supplies.

The Covington Walmart, donating 15 large boxes of new supplies.

The Kent Target, donating dozens of backpacks and supplies.

The Maple Valley, Auburn, Bonney Lake, Covington and Kent Fred Meyers, each store providing hundreds of dollars worth of backpacks.

The Enumclaw QFC, donating multiple backpacks.

The Auburn Office Depot, which laminated, cut and trimmed the name tags, as well as donating 150 eraser packs.

The Staples in Kent, donating two large boxes of pencils.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the role of Enumclaw School District employee Phil Engebretsen. He is the school district’s Assistant Director for Activities and Athletics, and is no longer the high school’s Assistant Principal and Athletic Director.

This photo, provided by Julie Reece-DeMarco, shows the final product of the student backpack-packing effort.

This photo, provided by Julie Reece-DeMarco, shows the final product of the student backpack-packing effort.