When Riley Gantt of Sherman Oaks, Cal., was 10 years old, she and her classmates visited a school with high numbers of students from low-income families as part of a book drive and reading program. Gantt was shocked to hear kindergarten students at the school tell her they couldn’t do their homework because they didn’t have crayons or pencils at home.
“Art is a big part of my life, and I couldn’t believe that these kids didn’t have crayons at home,” says Gantt. “I wanted to make a difference.”
Gantt discussed the issue with teachers and learned that the problem is widespread and that a serious achievement gaps exists between students who have homework supplies and those who don’t. Children with homework supplies have more success in school and a lower drop-out rate, and are more likely to progress to higher education.
In 2010, Gantt founded Rainbow Pack with help from her parents, teachers, and five classmates. Through Rainbow Pack, Gantt and student volunteers raise money to purchase homework supplies, which they deliver in brightly colored backpacks to students in need. From its very first donation drive, Rainbow Pack was able to purchase and distribute 360 new backpacks filled with supplies. In the four years since, Rainbow Pack has provided 5,560 full packs to students from grades early-K to 5.
The group has a website where supporters can volunteer, donate, or purchase Rainbow Pack merchandise, and more than 200 people follow the group at Facebook. Gantt, now 14 and in her first year of high school, devotes more than 100 volunteer hours per year to Rainbow Pack, and does everything from writing grants to supervising backpack distribution at an annual fair. Ten kids volunteer for Rainbow Pack throughout the year—with many more joining in at the start of the school year, when packs are distributed.
By working closely with officials from the Los Angeles Unified School District, Gantt was able to target four schools in a high-poverty area for Rainbow Pack distribution. Many students in this area are homeless, and many are first-generation US residents whose parents are struggling to navigate through a large public school system. Gantt and her fellow volunteers have won praise for their efforts from the L.A. City Council and the county Board of Supervisors. Rainbow Pack now receives donations and support from the L.A. Police Department, Fire Department, and Public Library, as well as from area businesses such as Target. In 2013, Gantt won a Build-A-Bear Huggable Heroes award for her work with Rainbow Pack.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Gantt says about working with the group. “It’s so rewarding to know you’re making a tangible difference in people’s lives.”
Gantt says her favorite experience as a volunteer took place when, during a Rainbow Pack distribution, she met a woman who was enrolling her five grandchildren in school, but who had been able to afford only one backpack.
“When she learned that all her kids were going to get backpacks, she broke down in tears,” says Gantt. “That was one of the best moments for me. But it’s always great when the kids open their packs and see the supplies. It’s like Christmas. It’s amazing.”