Backpacks For Kids

Oshkosh Northwestern Do It Community Challenges Show the Power of a Dollar

Community Steps Up to the Challenge: Oshkosh North High School was teaming with children, and school wasn’t even in session on this warm August day.

It was the Community Back to School Fair, which drew hundreds of students and their families for supplies and support toward a successful school year.

The event serves more than 1,000 children in need by providing free backpacks stuffed with school supplies, and essentials like a set of clothes, hygiene items, haircuts, dental cleanings and access to community resources for the whole family.

The community fundraising effort Backpacks for Kids has annually provided the backpacks and school supplies for children in need since 2000.

The campaign is one of the Oshkosh Northwestern’s Do It Community Challenges, fundraising efforts that raise awareness and collect funds to fill a community need.

Through its Donor Advised Fund with the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation, the Northwestern has collected contributions from readers and provided more than $553,000 in grants to nonprofit organizations in the Oshkosh area. Hundreds, upon hundreds of $20 and $40 contributions add up to the big impact made through the Backpacks for Kids, Stock the Shelves and Serving Seniors campaigns, demonstrating that every donation, big or small, makes a difference.

“With the Do It campaign, it was always intended to be a very grassroots effort. We were reaching out to our readers – the demographic of a Northwestern subscriber is very generous, but they generally don’t have the ability to make a big donation,” says Stew Rieckman, the paper’s general manager and executive editor. “When the appeals come around, readers respond according to their ability to contribute. They come through every year, and it’s a real pleasure to see.”

As the greater Oshkosh area’s only daily newspaper, the Northwestern is keenly aware of the needs in the community. It was only natural that it try to do some good, Rieckman says.

“We believe the newspaper needs to be a partner in solving problems in the community,” he says. “We can’t just sit back and report and editorialize on things that need to be fixed.”

The paper launched its first Backpacks for Kids campaign in 2000, modeling it after a successful effort by The Post-Crescent newspaper in Appleton. In addition to the backpacks at the Community Back to School Fair, the Northwestern provides $4,000 in Old Navy gift cards so middle and high school students can select a fashionable new outfit, as well as funds for the Boys and Girls Club of Oshkosh to provide basics like socks and underwear.

The Do It Community Challenges gain the highest profile among the Northwestern’s charitable efforts, but the paper also supports at least 20 community events each year by providing advertising and marketing for the causes.

A shining example, Rieckman says, is Bright Stars Face Off, a youth talent competition that benefits Community for Hope of Greater Oshkosh, a nonprofit dedicated to suicide prevention.

“Bright Stars is an example of a need in the community that was being addressed, but at a low level, and we were able help (the organization) turn it into a marquee event,” says Rieckman. “The first year, $50,000 was raised. That will grow each year.”

Thanks to parent company Gannett Co. Inc. and the Gannett Foundation, the paper also grants $10,000 annually to local organizations.

After 44 years with the local newspaper, Rieckman retired in October of 2013. While a successor hadn’t been named yet, he’s sure that the paper’s record of charitable giving and the partnership with the Community Foundation will continue long into the future.

“Whoever comes in to be the general manager will very quickly understand the Northwestern culture of being a leader and helping organizations,” he says. “The partnership with the Community Foundation gives us the credibility that we’re going to raise money and that it will be given back to the community in an appropriate way. Having that relationship sends a strong message to the community.”