Many people don’t figure out what’s truly important to them until they are adults. University of Virginia student Lucia Hoerr discovered it when she was in elementary school, working a lemonade stand.
Hoerr never wanted to keep any of the money she made from the operation. Instead, she would donate the funds – usually no more than $20 – to Charlottesville-area charities.
“If I got a thank-you letter in the mail, it completely made my week, and I hung each one up on my closet doors so that I could look at them every day,” she said. “After a while, though, I found myself wanting to have a larger impact.”
Initially, Hoerr (pronounced “her”) was discouraged because she didn’t have any income of her own that she could donate to the causes she was starting to learn about. In addition, she was too young to volunteer.
However, an amazing idea came to her when she was in the third grade.
Hoerr and her sister were shopping for extra school supplies when their mother, Gail, a UVA alumna, told them that many local families could not afford a backpack or school supplies for their children.
“I was astonished,” said Hoerr, who was 9 years old at the time. “School supply shopping was always my favorite part about going back to school, and to learn that many of my peers did not have that opportunity and had to start school without any supplies was devastating to me. That’s when I realized that I had never heard of a nonprofit with this focus, and I told my mom that I wanted to collect supplies for local students.”
That was the day Backpack Buddies was born.
“We had a sense almost from the start that this wasn’t just a third-grade project,” said Hoerr’s father, Carter, a UVA alumnus who works in advancement at the Darden School of Business. “When she discovered that first year what a positive impact she could have by helping people, she was off to the races.”
A nonprofit company, Backpack Buddies provides backpacks and school supplies to kindergarten through 12th-grade students in need in Charlottesville and throughout much of Virginia.
Over the past 10 years, Hoerr’s company has donated more than 3,500 fully packed backpacks.
A good portion of Backpack Buddies’ inventory is derived from individual donations (in the form of school supplies and cash) raised through fun runs, bake sales and other community events.
Last year, the company donated 724 backpacks (each of which costs about $100) to students in need.
Typically, Hoerr hosts large backpack-filling parties every summer in which a couple dozen volunteers fill several hundred backpacks with all of the school supplies they have collected.
The backpacks are split up into four grade ranges (K through second grade, third through fifth, sixth through eighth, and high school) and each range has its own school supply list for volunteers to follow.
Hoerr creates the lists after examining public schools’ inventory lists, so that no matter which school the backpack recipients attend or what grade they are in, they will receive every item that they need or more.
After operating out of her family’s garage and basement, Backpack Buddies recently opened a new, 1,500-square-foot office/warehouse space on Rio Road, donated by Patina Antiques.
With the COVID-19 phase 2 reopening plan in Charlottesville underway, Backpack Buddies has been able to resume taking inventory.
Hoerr said the company is currently trying to figure out what to do if protocols prevent large indoor gatherings from taking place next month.
Hoerr, a rising second-year student in UVA’s School of Engineering and Applied Science planning to major in computer engineering, said acclimating to life as a college student while running her company this past school year was a challenge.
“The key thing I have learned is the importance of asking for help when you need it,” Hoerr said. “All of the teachers at my alma mater, St. Anne’s-Belfield, were so incredibly supportive of my dreams from Day One. From fourth grade through senior graduation, I knew I always had the support and confidence of my teachers to back me up, and they were always willing to lend a hand in planning and managing fundraisers, reading over grant applications, or even helping me catch up on homework if I missed a class due to a Backpack Buddies event or obligation. All of my friends and peers were also so ready and willing to pitch in whenever I asked for their help, whether it was manning a bake sale stand during lunch or coming over to fill last-minute backpack requests.
“There have been numerous times in my life when I have become completely overwhelmed by schoolwork and Backpack Buddies work, but I have always been able to make it through thanks to the never-ending support of my family, teachers, friends and peers.”
From a young age, Hoerr said her parents have played a huge role in her being able to see the value of giving back. Her father is on the board of Habitat for Humanity, while her mother runs her own interior design and home staging company, Redesign Cville.
“She always made sure that my sister Berkeley and I realized how lucky we were growing up with everything we needed, and that many families in Charlottesville cannot afford necessities,” Hoerr said. “Both of my parents have strong entrepreneurial spirits and so I think that is where I learned from a young age that if you really want something you need to go after it with all of your heart and put in the effort to realize your goals.”
During the rest of her time at UVA, Hoerr hopes to integrate Backpack Buddies into the UVA community, potentially through a collaboration with Madison House.
“We’re so proud of what Lucia has accomplished,” Carter Hoerr said. “Over the past 10 years she has shown both determination and real empathy for the needy kids in our area – two pretty remarkable traits for a kid her age.”
Hoerr wants Backpack Buddies to live on after she graduates.
“My goal is to have a succession plan in place so that Backpack Buddies can continue to run in Charlottesville even without me here watching over it,” she said. “I also hope that wherever I end up I will be able to set up a new branch of Backpack Buddies and continue to expand my nonprofit far and wide.”
Hoerr calls Backpack Buddies her “greatest passion in life.”
“Every time I get to see the smiles on kids’ faces when they’re picking out their new backpacks, I am reminded that all of my effort and thousands of hours of hard work each year is completely worth it,” she said.
“Backpack Buddies is important to me because I have seen how heavy the financial burden of back-to-school shopping is on so many families and the relief and gratitude on the faces of the parents and public school teachers when they realize they no longer have to worry about the costs.”
Click here to learn more about Backpack Buddies.