Supplies for Dreams looks to bring up Chicago schools through backpacks

    Members of Supplies for Dreams. Photo courtesy of Hiro Kawashima.

    In May of 2008, Hiro Kawashima, a senior at New Trier High School, returned from a humanitarian aid mission to New Orleans with his high school jazz group with many emotions — feeling appreciative, powerless, optimistic and, most importantly, inspired.

    “When I returned home, part of me was grateful for being able to go on the trip, but part of me felt hopeless because I couldn’t go back there again at that moment or do something down there to help people,” said Kawashima, now a Weinberg freshman.

    After much discussion, he and his friend Aria Fiat, then a junior at New Trier, decided to do something in the realm of education because it was an important area in which they felt they could make an impact. That spring, they founded Supplies for Dreams, a nonprofit organization that provides supplies to students in the Chicago Public School District.

    Kawashima and Fiat are also in the process of creating a mentoring program with the lofty goal of having mentor teams in all 600 Chicago public schools.

    Kawashima arrived at Northwestern this September and wanted to start a new chapter of Supplies for Dreams at college and establish their presence on campus. At a Habitat for Humanity meeting early fall quarter, he met Weinberg sophomore Vanessa Lee. Even having just met her, Kawashima had a hunch she would be able to add something to his team. He proposed his idea to her and she jumped on board as Public Relations Director, armed with experience from her previous work with children, literacy and education organizations.

    The group is working on gaining ASG recognition and establishing a larger presence to match with the New Trier chapter, which Fiat currently heads. Kawashima and Fiat are also in the process of creating a mentoring program with the lofty goal of having mentor teams in all 600 Chicago public schools. College and high school students would be paired up with students and spend time with them, give them advice and keep up a running correspondence.

    “We want college students to work with middle school and elementary school kids because we’re closer in age than adults are and can connect with them on a different level,” Kawashima said. “We want them to follow the kids through school, not just stick with them for a year.”

    Lee said they hope that Northwestern students can make a big impact with the mentoring program.

    “Even if it’s only giving an hour of your time every week, you’re being a constant positive influence in their lives. You can connect with them and be there for them,” she said.

    They aim to have mentors placed in three large schools by the beginning of the next school year. They have been working with the CPS Partnerships office and have identified the first schools they will partner with; all three of the schools selected have a strong need, low average family incomes, and low rates of parental involvement.

    CPS is one of the nation’s largest and lowest-performing districts with over 400,000 students, 83 percent of whom come from low-income families, according to CPS statistics.

    Additionally, they would give a backpack of supplies such as binders, notebooks, pens, tape, pencils and construction paper to every student.

    “It is especially compelling when university students step forward to help because they provide direct role models.”
    - CPS director of partnerships Lisa Weirsma

    “I think that something really special with Supplies for Dreams is how we give the resources,” Kawashima said. “Many of us have participated in supply drives where you collect supplies, put them in a box and dump them in the classroom. We don’t do that. We make an individualized backpack for each student with the supplies they need for an entire year.”

    These supplies will greatly help some of the approximately 10,000 CPS students who qualify as homeless and would otherwise not have access to many supplies.

    The schools Supplies for Dreams hopes to help have thus far been receptive. In an email interview, Lisa Weirsma, the CPS director of partnerships, said they are pleased that students have taken the initiative to help the troubled school system.

    “I have met with them and encouraged them to get started with one activity, and build from there,” Weirsma said. “It is especially compelling when university students step forward to help because they provide direct role models.”

    Kawashima and Lee are proud of their organization’s low overhead cost. The majority of the supplies are donated and unlike large, national organizations, there is no employee compensation so the majority of donations can go towards fulfilling the organization’s mission. Supplies for Dreams was initially paid for by personal funds and donations from family and friends. They have also received donations from local churches and community groups. This winter Supplies for Dreams will be the primary beneficiary of the New Trier Jazz Festival, a large annual fundraiser.

    Members of Supplies for Dreams at a planning meeting for the Enrico Tonti Elementary-New Trier High School mentor exchange program. Photo courtesy of Hiro Kawashima.

    For now, the focus of the group is on growth. There are two working committees that hold weekly meetings in Norris and Shepard Residential College. The public relations team works on branding and advertising, and the mentorship team is creating the structure for the mentor program they are aiming to implement in the fall of 2009.

    The New Trier chapter, which has about 25 members, is working closely with the Northwestern chapter. They have been undergoing training and will soon begin a test-run of the mentorship program at Enrico Tonti Elementary School in Chicago.

    It is important to Fiat that the two chapters remain connected and have a sense of unity. She hopes that Supplies for Dreams will eventually develop into a large-scale organization that she can be involved in for the rest of her life.

    The group has accomplished a lot in less than two years of existence, especially as an organization founded by a junior and senior in high school, and their goals are far-reaching and ambitious.

    “It is not just a student group,” Kawashima said. “It is much bigger than that.”


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