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David Tepper gives back(packs)

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CHARLOTTE – The unmistakable shade of Carolina Panthers blue blossomed in every corner of the Thomasboro Academy gym, from the 600-plus students decked out in T-shirts provided by the team to the TopCats’ pompoms and eventually the confetti that rained down.

“Today, we’ve got a little something for y’all,” Panthers owner David Tepper told the rambunctious room. “Just like the football players need equipment, you guys need equipment.

“So today, we’re announcing that we’re giving backpacks to everybody in the school.”

The only thing louder than the bombardment of blue? The shrill screams of the giddy students as the pep rally of their young lives played out.

The only thing cooler than that? Tepper visiting several classrooms moments later and intently watching a first-grader stare in wonder as he discovered a ruler in his brand-new, black-with-blue-trim backpack.

“Look inside and see what’s in there,” Tepper told students in Ms. Abigail Stadig’s class as they tore into their backpacks like kids on Christmas morning. When many of them headed home Tuesday, their parents no doubt had a similar reaction.

“Our students are 100 percent free/reduced lunch, and we do have a pretty large homelessness population as well,” Thomasboro principal Janette McIver said. “This obviously is something that’s going to help our students and parents substantially.”

That is Tepper’s goal, and not just at Thomasboro Academy. Moments later he pulled up at Allenbrook Elementary, where fifth-graders asked for his autograph and he worked to convert a Steelers fan (a transformation Tepper himself recently underwent as a minority owner and Pittsburgh native).

This doesn’t stop with Allenbook, either. And it won’t stop with the 17 Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and the one Kannapolis City school that will have every student outfitted with a supply-filled backpack by mid-September. It’s all courtesy of The David Tepper Charitable Foundation, John M. Belk Endowment, Classroom Central and a number of Panthers players (Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation, Cam Newton Foundation, the Torrey Smith Family Fund, kicker Graham Gano and long snapper J.J. Jansen).

“When resources are tight, it’s important that us and other people in the community do things like this,” Tepper said. “We wanted to do Charlotte, but we’re thinking across the two states in the future – backpacks on both sides. We’ve got to figure that out for next year.”

For now, 12,000 backpacks will have to do – and they will do so much good. The Panthers played a major role in the formation of Classroom Central back in 2002, and since its inception the organization in conjunction with its partners has given away more than $56 million in school supplies.

But even for such a big success story, this donation is a big deal.

“Just to put it in perspective, with our backpacks program last year, we gave away 7,295,” said Karen Calder, executive director of Classroom Central. Her organization plans to give away nearly 21,000 backpacks this school year thanks in large part to this initiative.

“We’ve got 10 people on paid staff, but we also have thousands of volunteers that helped to make this happen – working behind the scenes, prepping the backpacks, making sure we have the right amount for each school," Calder continued. "This took the whole community working together.”

Tepper, 60, grew up in inner city Pittsburgh in a time when brown bags rather than backpacks were used to carry books – a sign of a times but also a financial reality.

“When I was in grade school like this, we used to walk to school. There were no backpacks,” Tepper said. “When I was in high school it was a couple of miles away and I used to walk – although I’ve got to admit, I used my thumb in those days. Down the hill was easy; back up the hill, I used to hitch rides a bunch – which is not a good thing to do, by the way. Don’t hitch rides.”

After the pep rally at Thomasboro, Tepper got down on the kids’ level – literally – taking a knee in four first-grade classrooms to share in the moment when students saw their backpacks. A student in the first class asked Tepper if there was candy in her backpack.

“No,” Tepper said to the relief of Principal McIver nearby. “But there are crayons.”

And pencils. And composition notebooks. And folders, erasers, pencil sharpeners, glue sticks. And rulers.

During Tepper’s subsequent visit to Allenbrook Elementary, principal Katharine Bonasera approached a student in Ms. Ellen Carman’s fifth-grade class and told him he was wearing the biggest smile she had seen in days.

“Almost 100 percent of our students are considered economically disadvantaged,” Bonasera said. “Our students come to school excited to learn every single day but don’t always have the tools and supplies that they need. So to take this one worry off their parents’ plate is just amazing.”

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