When schoolchildren return to the classroom next month, about 6,000 of the most needy in Rhode Island will receive a new backpack and school supplies from Gear for Grades, a Citizens Financial Group charitable program to ensure kids go to school prepared. Ned Handy, Citizens Bank’s Rhode Island market president, answered five questions about the bank’s signature community initiative.
PBN: Can you explain the Gear for Grades program and how it works? How much “gear” has been distributed over the life of the program?
HANDY: The Gear for Grades program began in 2003 as a way to provide new backpacks and school supplies for children in need in Rhode Island. Each year, Citizens purchases new backpacks for the program. Through Aug. 7, we [had] collection bins in all of our branches and operations centers across Rhode Island and encouraged our customers, colleagues and local community to donate new school supplies to help fill the backpacks.
Once the backpacks are stuffed with school supplies by our Citizens colleagues, they are distributed to organizations throughout the state who service children in need. Our partners – [WPRO-FM 92], Coast to Coast Promotional Products, and Recycling for Rhode Island Education – all manage important pieces of the program to get the backpacks to the children who need them the most. Since its inception, the program has provided more than 50,000 backpacks to Rhode Island youth.
PBN: Is Gear for Grades just in the Rhode Island market or is it done throughout the Citizens and Charter One footprint? If it has expanded, did it start here?
HANDY: Gear for Grades began in Rhode Island eight years ago and has expanded to other regions. This year, 23,000 backpacks filled with new school supplies will be distributed to children across Citizens Financial Group’s 12-state retail banking footprint.
PBN: What was the premise behind developing and launching Gear for Grades? Any problems, challenges, obstacles to overcome in developing the initiative and keeping it running?
HANDY: Many of us are fortunate enough to remember the feeling of excitement and anticipation that came every summer from preparing to return to school – shopping for new clothes, supplies, a new backpack. Unfortunately, thousands of local children never know that feeling because for them, school supplies are a luxury. We saw an increase in requests over the summer months for these basic items, and responded by creating this program to provide thousands of children with basic items they would need to return to school prepared to learn.
This initiative is regarded as one of Citizens’ signature programs, and our colleagues and customers are at the core of its success through their volunteerism and their donations.
PBN: I know the program was called something else before. What was that name, and what was the thinking behind the name change?
HANDY: At its inception, the program was called Tools for School. As the program’s success grew, we wanted to establish a program name for this signature program that could be replicated across our Citizens Bank and Charter One footprint. We changed the name to Gear for Grades in 2008.
PBN: What do school supplies have to do with the financial side of the business, making loans and investments and profits?
HANDY: At Citizens, we believe that in order to have a healthy bank, we need to have a healthy community. By supporting our local community and investing in our youth, Citizens is investing in our collective future. When we distribute these backpacks to local students, the look of pride on their faces – that they have their own backpack to take to school – tells us how something as little as school supplies has an important impact on children in need. I am proud to be part of a company that leads by example and has colleagues who are so willing to give back to our communities in need.