Riley Joy Gantt was ten years old when her class visited a school located in a low-income neighborhood. A young girl there told Riley how she wished she could get “skinny crayons” but her mom couldn’t afford them. It was the first time Riley had been confronted with the twin concepts of poverty and need.
That hurt. And that is where most ten year-olds would have left things: a sad story, something to sigh and tsk about. But not Riley Gantt. She wanted to know more. And more than that, she was determined to change the sad ending to a happy one, or at least to a happy beginning. And that’s exactly what Rainbow Pack offers, a happy beginning to a child’s school years, even for those kids who don’t have the means to have fancy crayons and nice new backpacks.
Rainbow Pack’s motto is: “Supplying Equal Education for All,” and while Rainbow Pack may not be able to help all children everywhere, it’s safe to say the nonprofit has made a darned good start, having given away 9,500 Rainbow Packs, school backpacks filled with basic school supplies, to Los Angeles-area elementary school students in need, since 2011.
Impressive? Kars4Kids thinks so and that’s why, when Rainbow Pack applied for a small grant, we were thrilled to help out. We thought it was pretty cool that Riley, a young school girl now a high school sophomore, was the face behind Rainbow Pack: the one applying for our small grant, and responding to our questions.
We think Riley’s an amazing kid with big things ahead of her, and we’re betting you’ll love her story and the story of Rainbow Pack as much as we do, here at Kars4Kids. We spoke to Riley at length and we think you’ll enjoy the results. Grab a cup of coffee and get ready to read about this remarkable teenager and the nonprofit she founded, Rainbow Pack.
Kars4Kids: Setting up a 501(c)3 nonprofit has to be beyond the abilities of a ten year-old, which is the age you were at the time you started Rainbow Pack. Can you tell us a bit about the evolution of this project? Did you have help?
Riley Gantt: I would have to say that in my opinion setting up a 501(c)3 nonprofit is not beyond the abilities of a ten year-old because I did it myself. But I would be lying if I said I did it alone. One of the people that helped me the most was my mom. When we started neither of us had ANY experience in the world of nonprofits. My mom works in advertising and ran a kids’ arts and crafts studio. One of the first thing she did to help me was set up a meeting with my school’s outreach coordinator who was the one that then put us in touch with the social worker at Haddon (the first school we gave backpacks to). Without that first meeting I don’t think Rainbow Pack would be what it is today.
Kars4Kids:Thanks to you, 9,500 “Rainbow Packs” have been sent to elementary school kids in your area. How does that make you feel? Is it hard to be humble with such a huge accomplishment under your belt at such a young age?
Riley Gantt: Knowing that we have given out over 9,500 Rainbow Packs is just mind-blowing to me. It is incredible to see the impact that something as simple as a backpack and supplies has on the lives of so many students. It is the best feeling in the world. It makes me feel grateful that I have the support I do to be able to have an impact like this. As far as my age, I don’t really think of it as a factor in what I do. Everyone can do something to help someone.
Kars4Kids: How many speaking engagements do you get during the course of a year? Do you have a prepared speech/presentation? Do you ever get stage fright?
Riley Gantt: From 4th grade to the second semester of my sophomore year I went to a very rigorous, non-flexible, college-prep school. So I really didn’t have the time to give a lot of speeches or presentations. I would say it would usually be about 3 to 5 a year. Which was very frustrating to me because I love public speaking, and I just didn’t have the time or flexibility to do it very often. I recently changed schools to have more flexibly with my schedule so I am looking forward to being able to do much more public speaking.
Even though I love public speaking, I have AWFUL stage fright. I remember there was one time when I was going to be reciting “Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town” by E.E. Cummings in front of my whole school for my 8th grade poetry competition. My heart was beating so fast and hard I almost turned around to my head of school and told him I couldn’t do it because I was having a heart attack. I tremble, sweat, feel very nauseated and have small panic attacks. I am an absolute nervous wreck before I speak. I don’t feel this way just in the first few minutes before I speak, but the first few days before I have to speak somewhere. But when I get up on stage and say my first word, it all goes away and I feel completely comfortable.
Kars4Kids: In the FAQ section of the Rainbow Pack website, the subject of “gently used” versus “new” comes up. At what point did you realize you would only accept new items? Were you receiving a lot of junk? Tell us why new items are so important.
Riley Gantt: When Rainbow Pack first started we really didn’t know what rules or guidelines we should have for people donating supplies to us. We assumed that our vision of ‘gently used” was the same as everyone else. It didn’t occur to us that people would give us broken, ripped and very dirty supplies that we would consider trash, to give to another child. After the first year we learned that we had to ask for new items only.
Over the last five years we have seen the impact on the kids when they receive brand new supplies. Often times the kids we help don’t get a lot of new things to call their own so they are very excited to have a brand new pencil or never before used box of crayons of their very own.
Kars4Kids: How did you draw up the list of what would be included in a Rainbow Pack? Do you ever wish you could do more? Is it hard to draw the line and say, “One eraser per child?” for instance?
Riley Gantt: We drew up the list of what is include in a Rainbow Pack both through our own guesses as to what the most needed supplies might be and from feedback from the teachers and social worker.
Since then we have released various surveys over the years to teachers asking them what supplies their students need in the backpacks. We ask if there are any supplies they would add and if there are any they would take away. An older list included scissors, but we soon learned from the teachers that they would prefer we didn’t send kindergartens home with scissors.
Of course we wish we could do more. We are giving these kids very basic supplies. I would love to be able to fill it with art supplies and 20 pencils and 10 erasers and giant boxes of crayons. But if we did that we would not be able to help as many kids as we are able to now. We have heard from the teachers that these are the supplies that are the most needed and so we stick to those.
Kars4Kids: Tell us about the other meaning of “Rainbow Pack.” Did these aged 10-16 year old volunteers approach you or did you approach them? What tasks fall to them? Are some of them your friends? Do you work on team spirit?
Riley Gantt: When I was first talking with my parents about Rainbow Pack we were thinking that we would collect gently used backpacks so we wouldn’t be able to call it something like the “red backpack club” or something based on a single color. The name just sort of came to me and my parents liked it so it just sort of stuck. But over the years, as Rainbow Pack has grown with me it has taken on more meaning. The name now refers to the wide variety of backpacks and supplies that we provide for the students. Variety and choice are important in giving the students a feeling of control they don’t often experience. Additionally the name refers to the many individuals that make up the organization itself.
All of the 10-16-year-old volunteers are either my friends, friends’ siblings, or family. A lot of them approached me after I told them about Rainbow Pack. Some of the first members were people I approached.
We definitely work on team spirit. It is a lot of work, and not very fun, packing the backpacks over the summer. It is very hot, the boxes are dirty, and it takes a long time. But everyone keeps a positive attitude and we all try to work together to make it go as fast as possible. We play music and make it as fun as we can. It makes everything worth it when we get to see the smiles on the kids faces when we hand them the backpacks.
Kars4Kids: Do you ever get thank you notes? Can you share the most moving note you’ve received and tell us about the sender?
Riley Gantt: Yes! We get a LOT of thank you notes. I always look forward to going through all of them after the giveaways. Last year, I started giving a little speech before each of the giveaways. It was all about how when I was little I wanted to be thing like a mermaid or a dolphin. But, as I got older I realized I might not be able to be a mermaid but in school I learned about the ocean. And I learned I could be something like a marine biologist, or I could become a writer and write about mermaids—that through school I learned how I could turn my dreams into reality. Part way through the day of the giveaway I almost stopped giving this speech before the giveaways because I thought it wasn’t doing anything. I thought the kids weren’t paying attention. But afterwards, when I read through the thank you notes I realized I was wrong. Here is one of the notes:
Kars4Kids: How many hours a week do you put in working on the Rainbow Pack project? Do you ever wish you could just drop it and be a normal kid? You’re not ten anymore. Would you say you feel the same way about this project as you did when you began?
Riley Gantt: I would say on average I probably spend 4-5 hours on Rainbow Pack a week. This is anything from sorting and packing, having meetings with school principals, and having discussions about our plans for the giveaways. When it gets closer to the giveaway this probably gets closer to about 10-12 hours. Honestly, it’s pretty hard to keep track of after a certain point.
I have thought about whether I wish I just had a “normal childhood” and was able to drop all of this and be a “normal kid.” But I really wouldn’t. I wouldn’t be happy. This is what I am passionate about and love doing. Instead of being passionate about something like dance or football, I am passionate about changing other people’s lives and closing the achievement gap.
I do not feel the same way about this project as I did when I began this. I have learned so much over the past 5 years. I know so much more about the issues facing these students and the community they live in. In the simplest terms, I care about it more then when I began. Of course I cared about what I was doing when I started, I was incredibly passionate about it then. Honestly, I didn’t think I could get any more invested in it. But I have learned so much over the years that has made me care about it even more.
Kars4Kids: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Riley Gantt: The short answer is I don’t really know. Right now I would love to run a for-profit company that is also an innovative solution to a pressing social issue. So this would make me a social entrepreneur. But, I am sure this will change. But whatever I do is going to have some sort of social change aspect because that is what makes me happy.
Kars4Kids: Does your schoolwork ever suffer because of the Rainbow Pack project? Can we ask what kind of grades you have?
Riley Gantt: Balancing school and Rainbow Pack has definitely always been a challenge. And every year it gets more and more difficult. This is why during the second semester of my sophomore year (this year) I switched schools. I was at a very competitive college prep private school. It was getting very frustrating for me because school is one of my favorite things. I am a complete nerd, I absolutely love school and learning new things. But I was having to choose not to take some of the harder classes I was eligible for because I knew I wouldn’t have enough time to do things for Rainbow Pack. Because one of my other favorite things is Rainbow Pack. So my parents and I started looking into other options. Ones that would give me the flexibility of a schedule I needed but still gave me a rigorous and challenging academic course load. And we found that in Laurel Springs. Laurel Springs School is a Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)-accredited K–12 distance learning school in Ojai, California. This means that my courses are online, but I still have an actual teacher that I can ask questions. The decision to switch to Laurel Springs was one of the best decisions I could have made. I am able to do everything I wanted to do.
Kars4Kids: What do you wish you’d known when you started Rainbow Pack?
Riley Gantt: There is a lot I wish I had known when I started Rainbow Pack. I wish I’d known I wasn’t alone. When I was first starting out it seemed like I was the only person in the world doing this. So it was difficult when my mom or I had questions because we had no idea who to ask those questions to. But as we got bigger, we started to meet more kids and families just like ours. It made me feel just a little less alone.
Kars4Kids: What would you tell kids who have ideas about how to help others?
Riley Gantt: Just start the conversation. Identify something that you care about, ask a question about that thing to those around you, and take action. It is so important to start a dialogue around what you care about because it lets you learn more about that thing and lets other people know you care and that they might care about it, too. Once you start this dialogue you can start thinking of ways to take action to help solve that problem. I would also tell kids to look at this wonderful website: http://www.juststarttheconversation.org/
I may be a little biased because it is my own website and platform but it elaborates on the ideas I shared above.