With schools reopening soon, parents are busy buying school clothes (for those children attending brick and mortar school) and getting together all the necessary school supplies. In its seventh year, Operation Backpack Spring Hill, a non-profit organization founded by Phil and Jennifer LaRossa, helps to ease some of this burden for local families in Hernando and Pasco counties. The event was held on Saturday, August 8 in the parking lot of the Towne Square Mall on U.S. 19 due to health and safety concerns brought on by Covid-19.
Besides the LaRossas, who started the project back in 2014, Nicolle Fernandez-Shute and Richard Sanvenero co-chaired this year’s event. It would not have been possible without the assistance of numerous individuals, companies, and organizations in Hernando and Pasco counties who donated money and time.
NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Hernando and The Shoppes at Towne Square Mall gave invaluable support. Attorneys Whittel and Melton, Domino’s Pizza, Robinson Chiropractic, Suncoast Credit Union, and MRI Spring Hill were Event Sponsors. Merrell Brothers, The Hernando Sun, Chambers Law Firm, and Blaise Ingoglia were Gold Sponsors. The SEED Foundation, Kiwanis Club of the Adventure Coast, Comfort Control Specialists, Coffee News, County Commissioner John Allocco, Tropic Shores Realty, Florida’s A Team, Carter Foreman Attorneys-at-Law, Crosspoint Church, 1st Choice Plumbing and Gator Nutrition were Bronze Sponsors.
The project is a family affair for the LaRossas, involving their three children – Evan, Hailey, and Kelsey. It takes a widespread community effort, as well. One of the organizations out in force was #FOR Hernando. It is a coalition of local churches and non-profits started three years ago by members of Crosspoint Church.
T.J. Butler, a volunteer from Crosspoint Church, stated: “#FOR Hernando is a movement to show that Christians are for loving people, meeting their needs and showing them that they matter. Whatever we can do to go out and meet their physical and emotional needs, whether it’s giving them a bottle of water or whatever. The idea is that if we can get all our churches and all our non-profits working together for the love of Christ we can make an impact far greater than any individual church can make.”
Jennifer LaRossa remarked, “This takes a very large team of volunteers and multiple days of meetings, suggestions, and organization and stuffing backpacks. We had about twenty-five volunteers on multiple days helping to get this together. It takes many months to prepare and we usually start about six months beforehand. We have to gather sponsors together and collect funds, as well as ordering supplies and backpacks.”
This year they collected enough supplies to fill 1,050 backpacks and quite a few drawstring bags. All the backpacks were gone by the time the event ended at 1:00 p.m. There were a few drawstring bags leftover. These will be available at the NAMI Hernando office for a while for those people who did not make it to the event on Saturday. Call 352-684-0004 to request one.
Nicholle Fernandez-Shute, franchise owner and publisher of Coffee News, was a co-chair this year. She has been one of the sponsors for the past three years.
“For the first time, we have more backpacks and more demand with the pandemic going on. Phil and Jenny needed more help, so I said, ‘Let’s help in a bigger way than we have before.’”
Needless to say, the children were thrilled to be able to pick out a backpack of their favorite color.
Gia Colon is going into first grade and will be staying home and learning.
“My mommy will be helping me. I’m excited about learning all the new things,” Gia remarked.
Ital Ortiz who is going into third grade will also be studying from home.
Regarding his choice of backpack, Ital commented, “Blue is one of my favorite colors.”
About his experience this past spring, the boy added, “It was kind of hard learning from home.”
Sixteen-year-old Lilith Richards is going into 11th grade and will be attending classes at Weeki Wachee High School.
“I’m looking forward to going back to a regular classroom. After having to be home with my sisters, I’m glad to be back. I miss my friends. With two school-age sisters and two baby siblings, I could not stand another day in that house,” Lilith explained wryly.
With the success of this year’s Operation Backpack Spring Hill, the LaRossas and their team are probably already starting to think about next year’s event. Anyone interested in being a part of this worthwhile project can email them at [email protected] or call 352-848-4404. You can also go to their Facebook page for pictures and more information.