Lilly Checkoff spent the summer of 2013 selling soft pretzels along the Margate, New Jersey beach, often attracting the negative attention of ice cream vendors—and, sometimes, even the police—because she didn’t have a permit for what she was doing.
Eventually, she and her brother Cole decided that if they actually wanted their idea to take off, if they actually wanted to raise money to get backpacks and school supplies into the hands of kids who needed them, they would need to think bigger. “We realized we couldn’t keep walking up and down the beach selling pretzels,” she laughs.
At the time, Lilly, now 19, was 12-years-old.
Six years later, Tools for School, a completely teen-led and -run South Jersey-based organization, has raised more than $60,000, with which they’ve purchased, packed, and donated 4,800 backpacks stocked with school supplies to 12 organizations in South Jersey and Philadelphia, which then distribute them to local students. This year, now-president Montana Checkoff, Lilly’s 17-year-old sister, wants to distribute 5,000 backpacks—more than they’ve given out in the past six years—and significantly expand the number of organizations to which they donate.
The organization is now primarily supported by corporate sponsors, though they still do some of the fundraising initiatives they got started on, such as school spirit weeks and dodgeball tournaments. They buy the backpacks wholesale, then work with the organizations that distribute their backpacks to kids to determine what supplies should go inside them. Every summer, their work culminates with a backpacking event, where community members come out to help fill every backpack with supplies prior to delivering them to the organizations.
The idea started small—Lilly’s bat mitzvah was coming up, and her synagogue required that she complete a “social action” project in preparation. She didn’t love sports, and wasn’t particularly interested in any clubs at her school, so she saw the project as an opportunity to do something big, something that she could call her own.
“I try to imagine showing up to school on the first day without supplies,” says Lilly. “I know how much more likely kids are to be successful when they have the tools they need.”
She also knew that some surveys showed that the average household spent as much as $501 on school supplies every year, a dollar amount that can be insurmountable for some families.
“For some people that could be the difference between paying rent and buying your kid school supplies,” says Lilly, who is a sophomore at the University of Delaware studying nutrition and dietetics with a minor in entrepreneurship. “I try to imagine showing up to school on the first day without supplies. I know how much more likely kids are to be successful when they have the tools they need.”
So she and Cole set out to tackle the issue pretzel by pretzel, and also started collecting donations from friends and family, with much of their fundraising consisting of donations sent to her dad, Todd Checkoff, via his Paypal account. At the end of the first year, Lilly and her family packed and distributed 100 backpacks.
In the 2015-2016 school year, with support from the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey, Tools for School established a teen board of around 20 students, most but not all of whom attended Cherry Hill High School East. Lilly became the organization’s first president, and got to work turning a family-run project into a full-fledged teen initiative with an official website and professional-looking logo.
The story of Tools for School since then is truly one of word of mouth and savvy social networking by teenagers. They gained Wolf Commercial Real Estate as their first corporate sponsor in 2015 with the help of a family connection. “It really started off by getting families and friends, and that then gave us some credibility to reach out to people who don’t know us,” explains Lilly.
Those sponsors have since grown to include the Paul Rabinowitz Glass Company—Rabinowitz is a family friend—Nemours duPont Pediatrics—a doctor there is the Checkoff kids’ pediatrician—and the Gerry Lenfest Legacy Fund from the Philadelphia Foundation.
One particular family connection continues to allow the organization to grow and thrive: Lilly and Montana’s uncle, Craig Grossman, is a general partner with Arts + Crafts Holdings, a Philadelphia-based real estate investor and developer. His involvement and the company’s sponsorship and fundraising support, along with his son Sammy’s interest in bringing the organization’s fundraising activities across the Ben Franklin as part of his own bar mitzvah project, has spurred the organization’s rapid growth.
This fall, Arts + Crafts tenant Roy-Pitz Barrel House, located on the ground floor of 990 Spring Garden, used honey from hives on the roof of the building in an IPA called “Sting Arts”—a play on Spring Arts, the name Arts + Crafts calls the neighborhood. Half of the proceeds from the IPA’s sales over the course of the two months it was available went to Tools for School, resulting in nearly $5,000 the organization can use this school year.
Meredith Seligman, Director of the Family Assistance Program for Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Southern New Jersey—and the mother of a friend of Lilly’s—runs three food pantries in Southern New Jersey, and starts a list of interested parents in July for the backpacks that will be given out right before school starts. The organization ends up giving out at least 100 backpacks each year.
“It’s such a huge help. Schools demand that you have to get these supplies, and they could easily cost $50 to $100 per child,” she says. “And our clients just do not have it.”
Lilly says that the organization being led by teens is really the whole idea, as evidenced by the slogan “Kids Helping Kids.” Tools for School is supposed to benefit more than just the kids who receive backpacks; it also benefits the kids who run it.
According to Todd, “The kids who run this organization are also tremendous beneficiaries of this. They’re running a business and they don’t even realize it. There’s operations, communications, marketing, social media. They are fully responsible for all of it, it falls squarely on their shoulders. I’m a cheerleader, I’m an advocate, but they’re the ones doing it.
A teen-led organization, though, isn’t all fun and social justice. Both Montana and Lilly say it comes with its fair share of challenges, particularly in motivating them to follow through on their commitments and responsibilities. They’ve tried over the years to allow board members to sign up for tasks instead of assigning them to increase motivation; some kids just hate talking on the phone, and they’re more likely to maintain a commitment to posting on social media. This year, Montana is also considering cutting the board down from 20 teens to a smaller “core group” to bolster their sense of responsibility.
Todd says that while the teenagers are always looking for more sponsors and donations, they’re equally interested in finding new distributors for the backpacks so they can reach as many kids as possible. Grossman—whose children, Lilly and Montana’s cousins, are also involved in the organization—would also love to see them be able to expand the definition of “tools,” and maybe even expand into providing art or physical education supplies directly to schools that lack them.
Of course, the teens could have chosen to raise money for or donate food, or clothes, or a host of other things that kids sometimes go without. Montana, though, says backpacks are a clear choice for their efforts because they know parents often have to focus on other priorities, which can leave necessities like school supplies unpurchased.
“The kids that get the backpacks, their parents might need to decide between buying food and buying schools supplies. In that position, food will always come first and their child’s health will always come first,” she says. “But what’s going to happen when they go back to school with an empty backpack?”Photos by Andrew Rowan