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'Wonderful to see': Utah military families grateful for backpack giveaway to more than 400 kids

CLEARFIELD — As 5-year-old Adilene Saunders rummaged through her brand new blue backpack, she happily announced each new discovery to her mom.

"I got new pens!" she exclaimed. "Another book! Stickers! Another notebook!"

The soon-to-be kindergartener was one of more than 400 Utah children to be gifted with a free new backpack Friday — plus all the exciting goods inside — in a back-to-school gesture for Utah military families.

Adilene's anticipation in the days before the giveaway were palpable, her mother said. Even her little sister, not quite old enough yet to go to school, joined in the fun of it.

"They're probably going to be talking about this all day," laughed Rachel Saunders, whose husband is an Air Force firefighter at Hill Air Force Base. "Probably all weekend."

The giveaway was organized by national nonprofit Operation Homefront, a group that provides several services to military members and their families and anticipates giving away more than 22,000 backpacks to children across the United States for the new school year.

The gesture has an impact, Saunders said, because military families "are not made of money." She and her husband are the parents of five children, with a 3-week-old newborn as well as an adopted 5-month-old who recently joined the family.

The money not spent on school supplies, Saunders said, means "more for food, or more for gas, or whatever else we may need this month."

"It will definitely make a big difference having this help."

Lt. Col. Rochelle Smith, who works in the contracting division at the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center at Hill Air Force Base, said that "for those who have quite a few kids in school, it makes quite a big difference." She stopped by Hill Field Elementary on Friday to pick up a pair of backpacks to surprise her 8-year-old and 11-year-old with.

"For me, it's a reminder that Hill (Air Force Base), and Utah, are one of the most supportive communities in the Air Force," said Smith, who added the advertisements on base for free backpacks were hard to miss. "It's wonderful to see something like this."

Kathleen Coleman, who oversees four states including Utah as a program coordinator for Operation Homefront, said the children coming by Friday "love having their new backpacks."

"Especially the little kids, they're very excited," she said.

Coleman said some of the military kids have recently moved to Utah as the result of their parent's new assignment, so making back-to-school season a positive experience for them is particularly important.

"Being the new kid in school, it helps them ease into their new environment, ready to go with a new backpack," she said.

Besides school supply giveaways, Operation Homefront provides more extensive aid for active military and military reserve members, post-9/11 veterans, any wounded or ill veteran, and their families, including mortgage or rent assistance and funds for utilities or food. It also carries out smaller-scale services such as hosting baby showers for children born into military families.

The school supplies program, called the Back-to-School Brigade, started in 2008 and has given away more than 300,000 backpacks in the United States since its inception, Coleman said.

"When you work closely with military (members), you understand the amount of sacrifice and the amount of attentiveness our military families give to our communities," she said. "I don't think our military is appreciated enough."

Coleman said she's grateful for the chance the backpack giveaways offer her to "thank a military member in person."

"I give lots of hugs," she said. "I love them so much."