This year, the Sean Anderson Foundation formed a very special partnership with Project Knapsack (www.projectknapsack.org ). Founded by Porcha L. Dodson, Project Knapsack partners elementary and secondary students in the United States with pen pals in Africa; moreover, the schools on the developing side of the exchange receive new backpacks filled with school supplies via Project Knapsack and the organization’s partnership with Staples.
Being that this partnership is so special and unique, we wanted to make sure that the Sean Anderson Foundation’s community of supporters were able to fully understand the scope and magnitude of this relationship, while gaining insight into how the lives of the children involved would be forever changed; for that reason, thank you to our dear friend and ally in positive change, Porcha Dodson, for taking the time to do an interview with us here at the Sean Anderson Foundation.
PLEASE make sure you visit the Project Knapsack website, and start following our PK friends via their social media accounts (@ProjectKnapsack on Facebook and Twitter)!
To see additional photos from our partner schools [Molalatladi Primary School (Soweto, South Africa) and Bates Academy (Detroit, MI, USA), and/or follow our ongoing partnership with Project Knapsack, visit our website’s dedicated Project Knapsack page here: http://seanandersonfoundation.org/programs/project-knapsack/
*Interview after the jump below*
Rashon A. Massey (Board Member, Sean Anderson Foundation): Good afternoon, Porcha! Thank you for taking the time to chat.
Porcha L.Dodson (Founder, Project Knapsack): Actually, thank you and the rest of the Sean Anderson Foundation for your support! We greatly appreciate you taking the time to write an article about what we’re up to.
RM: Well, let us get to it! Tell me a bit about yourself and how Project Knapsack came to be.
PD: I used to be an elementary school teacher, and most of my time had been in private schools working in the classrooms and working administration. So back in 2007, I had a friend who lived in Africa, and I was just at a transition in my life, feeling like I needed to do more. It was time for a change. Like I said, I was working with private schools and many celebrities and their kids, and I came to a point where I felt like I needed to do something more with my life. So I called my friend in Zambia, and told him I really wanted to come work with him and the kids. I told him to just find me some schools there, as I just need something uplifting in my life now. He said, “Well, you can come here and we can find you some schools, but anything you want to do with them, any projects, you would have to bring those materials and supplies yourself.” So that’s where I started my quest.
That day, I went to Target, our local Target in L.A., and told them, “Hey! I’m planning a trip to Africa. If you have any extra school supplies, anything, give them to me. I’ll pay for shipping myself. I would love to take them to these kids in Africa.” At the time, Target wasn’t really doing too much international outreach so I went to Office Depot. Gave them the same talk; however, they had already chosen a project for the year. After that, I went to Staples, and what do you know, a gentleman that works there said, “Absolutely! We send things back all the time that either kids don’t like or don’t sell.” So every Friday, since 2007, I go to several local Staples, and they give me all the school supplies that go into the backpacks that go to Africa. To date, they have donated about half a million dollars in brand new school supplies that I keep in storage. So when it comes time to pack and send the backpacks, those are the supplies I use. Staples has been, and still is, Project Knapsack’s biggest sponsor.
RM: That is phenomenal!
PD: It was a lesson to me because I went to three people and two were not down for the idea. Then that one person felt it was a great idea! So whenever I talk to people/kids, I tell them, “If someone isn’t feeling your idea,keep going to the next person. Eventually, someone’s going to want to support you.”
So, yeah, I just kept going. Then before I went to Africa, and at the time, this is back in ’07, I told my kids in my class, “Hey, I’m going to Africa for Spring Break so let’s write the kids some letters.”
RM: …so that’s how the pen pal exchange was introduced!
PD: Exactly. When I first started Project Knapsack, it was never meant to turn into what it is today. It’s just by the grace of God that people thought it was a great idea, and other schools wanted to pick it up. For the first couple years, I was paying out of my own pocket, as a teacher. I didn’t make any money. Very little salary, but because it felt good and it was helping a lot of people, I paid out of pocket for two years. So for that third year when it started really taking off, I set it up as a 501(c)3 organization. That’s how we got started.
I grew up in a small town in Virginia, and I was raised by my grandparents. Even as a small child, my grandparents were like, “We have to give back!” We would work in the church and bake things to give to neighbors. So I actually grew up in a culture of giving, even though my family didn’t have a lot to give.
RM: That’s quite a blessed foundation to be paved for you to build Project Knapsack from.
PD: I think so too. So basically, Project Knapsack is a pen pal and backpack organization. I think it is very important to connect kids globally. Kids in America have no clue what children face in the developing world, and kids in Africa have no idea what life is like for children here. I really like to keep to the pen pal portion because we live in an age of technology. Look – kids these days are on Skype, Whatsapp… but no one writes handwritten letters. So it was really important for children to stick with the letter writing. You can practice your grammar, penmanship, spelling…
RM: …and it’s something tangible that the kids can have and hold on to!
PD: Yes it is! You know, every once in a while, I’ll do a Skype project or class email on the computers, but I try to keep technology out of it because we have so much of it in our lives.
RM: Yes. Brilliant. (laughs)
PD: We’re 8 years strong now. I run it by myself with a board of directors and an amazing group of volunteers.
RM: As far as the schools that you’re working with in America, what states are they located in?
PD: The majority of our schools are in L.A. We have two schools in Detroit. We also have schools in New York, Virginia, Florida and Texas. In Africa, we have schools in South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Mozambique and Nigeria.
RM: How did you choose the school for our project?
PD: Truthfully, it is one of my first schools I started with that also works closely with the Mandela Foundation, it’s the Molalatladi Primary School. Since I have a really great relationship with the teachers and faculty, I wanted to partner Sean Anderson Foundation and the kids in Detroit with a South African school that I knew would really get a lot out of the relationship.
RM: Tell me a bit more about the school.
PD: It is a K-8 elementary school. It is located in Soweto, and Soweto stands for “South West Township”. It is the largest and most impoverished township in South Africa. In terms of history, during the Apartheid era, a lot of the black people were forced out of Johannesburg and out to larger more vast areas were the townships were. There were some people who got to stay kind of close in Johannesburg and Victoria, but they basically pushed out all of the black people and put them in Soweto. So you can drive along the highway and see thousands and thousands and thousands of scantily clad houses, and people can’t get out of there. That all started back in Apartheid. These kids, though, are super, super smart! It costs them about $100 a year for them to go to school, and that pays for uniforms, hot lunches and that pays for books. It’s considered a government funded school, but it’s not like what we know as government funded education here. Also – It’s a beautiful school! They just had a donor build them a computer lab…they have a beautiful library. The Head Master, Julia Ngobeni, has been there for 20 years. The kids are so smart there and take education very seriously.
RM: When you think about the future of Project Knapsack, where do you want to take it?
PD: Our goal, always, is to expand to include more schools in the United States and Africa, but I would really love to start taking a group there. I’ve never been able to take anyone there with me. I’d love for someone or a group to go with me to do more hands-on stuff. I’d love to help expand a couple libraries at these schools too.
RM: How many letters are typically exchanged in a year?
PD: This year alone, wow, we probably have about 3,000 letters going back and forth between here and Africa. Also – this is important and something we pride ourselves on: Even though we might be working with a 5th or 6th grade class in Africa, we make sure every kid in the school gets a backpack!
RM: So on average, how many backpacks are being given to schools?
PD: On average, we do between 5,000-15,000 backpacks a year, and all of the money we make, every single dime, goes to shipping. I don’t pay myself a salary; there’s nobody on payroll. We don’t have a lot of overhead.
RM: That really is outstanding.
PD: Yes, and I do this by myself. This little lady. (laughs) But you know, sometimes you just have to make up your mind and get things done! I truly believe when you focus on helping others, putting that energy out and doing the little you can, you will slowly watch how fruitful it can become. Why? Because you’ve given your time, you’ve given your heart and you’ve put everything into helping someone else.
RM: You have inspired me in more ways than I could have imagined. So very thankful our organizations are partnered, and I look forward to working together, so we can better the lives of the youth in the United States and Africa!
PD: From the bottom of my heart, thank you, Myra Anderson and Sean for being so hands-on and seeing the purpose and potential of Project Knapsack. I’m only able to help those in need because of the kindness of others, and together, we can make an even larger positive impact in the world!