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Former teacher using late sister's memory to ensure kids get much-needed school supplies

In its third year, Operation Back to School is trying to fill 2,000 backpacks with supplies to give to area students while easing the financial burden on families.

PORTLAND, Ore — At last, school is out for the summer, but for Lillian Green the work is just getting started.

“That is the first question that every cashier asks me when I’m literally buying 100 bottles of glue. They’re like, ‘Oh, you must be a teacher,’” she said.

Green is a former teacher, and you could say it runs in her DNA. Her sister, Kim Green Ellsworth, taught for 20 years in Hillsboro. 

“She was the person who was going to make sure that her students had what they needed…she impacted generation upon generation of students,” Green said.

During a family spring break trip in 2018, Kim suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. 

“When she passed away, it was a ripple effect in the community, and it was felt all over the place,” Green said.

In the months that followed, Green said she needed something to keep her busy. She founded Operation Back to School, filling backpacks with school supplies for students while relieving an extra financial burden for families.

“This program was designed to serve Black, Indigenous, people of color," she said.

But it was also a way to honor Kim.

Credit: Lillian Green

“She was a champion for the students that she served. She loved her family, she loved her students…I think she’s smiling down on us for the work that we’re doing…and she would be packing with us," Green said.

In their first year, Operation Back to School filled 100 backpacks for kids at South Meadows Middle School, where Kim last taught. Last year, they gave out about 540 backpacks across Multnomah County and Washington County. In this, their third year, Green wants to do even more.

“I’m just going to just put it out there, but we’re going to try and fill 2,000 backpacks this year. It seems super ambitious, but it's for the need that’s out there,” she said. 

Supplies are needed in July in order to have them packed and distributed in August, well before the new school year. Green says she couldn’t do it without partner organizations like Adelante Mujeres, IRCO, the Hillsboro DHS office, Hillsboro Boys and Girls Club, Family Promise, South Meadow Middle School, the Open School, and a community backpack distribution event hosted at Jayah Rose Annex.

She knows this year will look different, but the need has not diminished.

“We use what we call the double-down method,” she said. “When you look at our backpacks, they are fat because we literally double the supplies…so when they get the backpack it is a heavy backpack,” said Green.

The hope is that these heavy packs will lighten the load for families this summer. Green says it’s all about creating a lasting impact.

“When you provide this community layer of support, it’s not just an investment into these families, but also the community and showing that these scholars are our future leaders and it’s our responsibility to ensure that they have the supplies that they need," Green said.

A cause that is written right on her heart, thanks to her late sister. 

“It solidified the reason why a program like this needs to be in place just to honor her memory and to keep that memory alive,” she said.

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