Ron Dreye Turner Jr. is a little guy in a big changing world. When Ron walked from table to table getting school supplies, nothing seemed familiar and he didn’t want to let go of his father’s hand. Then a friendly voice said, “I have something I know you will like; how about a Paw Patrol backpack?” His eyes were still big as saucers, but Paw Patrol was about to bridge the gap between the known and the unknown as this little kindergartner started his education.

Ron Dreye was one of nearly 400 West Feliciana children who received backpacks and school supplies from Happi Llandiers Inc. and its partnering foundation, the Backpack Project. More than 500 students and adults participated in the 30th Back-to-School Expo held at West Feliciana Middle School on Saturday.

Helen Whitfield, director of The Happi Llandiers, said the organization has been in existence since 1955, the year she was born. The organization was started by educators and other professionals who wanted to help their neighbors in need, especially schoolchildren and their families. Happi Llandiers focuses on efforts that bridge gaps and meet emerging needs.

The earliest members of Happi Llandiers were teachers who were sensitive to the fact many children stayed home from school because they lacked clothing, food and school supplies. In the early years, they raised money and used their own resources help schoolchildren. In 1985, Happi Llandiers became a United Way Agency, expanded its services and saw the operating budget exceed $100,000. “It has quite a history and have had only three directors,” Helen Whitfield said.

The school supply giveaway started at a church in the Solitude community of St. Francisville. From New St. Luke Baptist Church, the annual event moved first to the high school and then to the middle school. In addition to the distribution of supplies, the event features workshops, welcomes from the superintendent and area principals.

The group has recently expanded to provide two sets of new uniforms for students who meet income qualifications.

Happi Llandiers was deeply rooted in family, and both Helen Whitfield and her sister, Sharon Eames, have been active in the effort since they were children. Decades later, their children are not only still a part of the effort, but the next generation of the family has started the Backpack Project, a foundation started to help provide new book sacks across the parish. “We like giving back to the community,” Helen Whitfield said. “I work so hard to pack supplies for these kids so that they will have a good start for the new school year.”

Three of the sisters’ children — Chad Eames, Chase Eames and Brittany Whitfield — started the Backpack Project three years ago, and last year, the group raised enough money to give a backpack to each middle and high school student in attendance. This year, those age groups were fully served and most of the elementary-aged children received book sacks and backpacks.

The 23-year-old twins and their cousin started helping the group pack school supplies. As the need grew, the trio started getting donations and holding fundraisers to supply the backpacks. Chase Eames said the Backpack Project was in its infancy in 2016 but became an official nonprofit organization in 2017.

Brittany Whitfield, a ULM graduate and medical lab scientist in Dallas, said the growth was strong and steady. “One particular year, as door prizes, my mother gave away 10 backpacks, and then we came up with the idea about giving backpacks to everyone and not just a select few,” she said. “The first year we gave away 100 in 2016; the next year, it was 150. Each year we've grown, and last year every middle schooler and high schooler who attended the program received one, and it will be the same this year.”

Enough money was raised to bring 375 backpacks and book sacks to the 2019 event. “The idea has always been in the back of our heads because so many children are not fortunate to have a new backpack for school,” Brittany Whitfield said. “Growing up, we were fortunate enough to have new backpacks at the beginning of the school year, but so many children are using backpacks from two or three years ago.”

Backpacks have become a source of pride and individuality as most school districts have uniform policies. Children all dress alike, but the backpack offers something unique to set a child apart.

The foundation gives away JanSport backpacks for two reasons. First, they are very good products, but they also have a warranty on each backpack and if there's a problem, the students are given contact information so that they can have JanSport replace the backpack. “They have a lifetime warranty and replacement policy,” Chad Eames said, adding that the warranty card is left in each backpack.

The cousins are getting older and looking toward the future of the project. Brittany Whitfield came back for the project, but she has been living and working in Dallas since October 2018. Chase Eames is completing a business/human resources degree at Southern University, and his brother, Chad Eames, a recent graduate of ITI, has been working as a process operator for Community Coffee for a year.

They have a strong grasp on social media marketing, fundraising and moving mountains with the Cashapp donations, but they hope the future will bring further expansions of the project and the ability to spread it to other surrounding parishes.