NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Volunteers of America is trying to get thousands of children living in New York City homeless shelters ready for school with Operation Backpack.

The organization provided more than 16,000 backpacks full of new school supplies to children in need last year.

“This year, with family homelessness at a record high, we have 19,000 requests for backpacks,” Rachel Weinstein of Volunteers of America told WCBS 880’s Sean Adams.

Weinstein came up with the idea for Operation Backpack more than a decade ago while back-to-school shopping with her daughter.

“So often children who are homeless or otherwise in need everything they have is secondhand, they don’t get a lot of new things, so when these children get their backpack and they start to open it up and explore it and they look into all the pockets and everything’s there, they are absolutely thrilled,” Weinstein said.

Bakary Diallo, 17, credits Volunteers of America and Operation Backpack with changing his life.

“I was in a shelter, living in a shelter you would never think that somebody cared for you,” Diallo said. “I definitely wasn’t interested in school at all until somebody gave me a backpack. That kind of symbolized education, hope, not giving up. It made me want to go to school more.”

Diallo is out of the shelter system now but he still returns to tutor and play with the children.

“Volunteers of America workers inspired me to become a better person,” Diallo said.

Roughly 150 companies — including HSBC, Duane Reade and FedEx — participate in Operation Backpack, but Volunteers of America could always use additional help.

“Everyone can contribute, you don’t have to be rich to contribute to Operation Backpack,” Weinstein said. “You can give us a box of new pencils and we’ll be grateful.”

To learn how you can help, click here.

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