Benicia Church rallies for Puente backpack drive

Almost anyone who makes it a habit to give of their time, love or money will explain that they hope to make a difference in someone’s life. Knowing you’ve done so is a pleasure. And meeting the person you’ve helped – that can be transformational.

For years, members of the Benicia Community Congregational Church have donated funds toward buying backpacks and stuffing them with reams of school supplies – enough for every single kindergartener and first grade student in the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District whose families are unable to buy their own. Then they take the extra step of driving to Puente each year to deliver the supplies and spend time in fellowship with the community their donations benefit.

Members of Benicia Community Congregational Church with backpacks
Members of Benicia Community Congregational Church with backpacks

If Benicia Congregational had simply donated the supplies – which benefit more than 40 children each year – their act of generosity would have been more than enough. But the act of giving itself has never been the stopping point, says Sarah Thompson, chair of the Mission and Outreach Committee for the church. It’s about relationships.

“It’s really important to make those personal connections. We’re not just making these backpacks for a faceless person; there’s going to be someone receiving them,” says Thompson, a professor of sociology at Las Positas Community College in Livermore. She and her family live in American Canyon, in Napa County, and are longtime members of Benicia Congregational Church.

That’s why, once they receive a “wish list” from Puente, kids in the congregation shop for the school supplies in person, rather than online. And they not only buy typical supplies like pencils, paints, notebooks, binders and glue sticks; they also purchase lunch boxes, thermoses and sweatshirts. They take care to ensure that every sweatshirt is a little different, so each child can feel unique.

That’s not all. Benicia Congregational also buys extra supplies for teachers in La Honda and Pescadero – a way to acknowledge that South Coast teachers are often called upon to dig deep into their own pockets during the school year and come up with extra crayons, calculators and everything in between for their students.

Back at the church, the young people form a joyful assembly line to stuff the backpacks with all the goodies they bought. But not before adding an incredibly thoughtful touch: handwritten notes in each bag that say things like “Have a great school year!” and “Study hard!”

Sarah Thompson (right) with backpacks and members of Benicia Community Congregational Church
Sarah Thompson (right) with backpacks and members of Benecia Community Congregational Church

Thompson and her husband have two daughters, aged 12 and 14, who relish the process of putting together those individual backpacks each year.

“The girls love Puente. They really get to assemble everything and make it all look nice. They get to imagine what the response will be: what will they think when they see it?” says Thompson.

Benicia Community Congregational partakes in a United Church of Christ tradition that is deeply rooted in justice, fellowship and mutual respect. From the start of the church’s relationship with Puente, Thompson and other congregants felt that it was important to meet the people their donations benefit. So each August, when they drive to Puente to unload their supplies, Thompson’s group always brings a picnic to share. They spend time with Puente staff and meet local parents. Their kids sometimes play together on the jungle gym with the local kids. It’s a relationship with mutual benefits.

Puente values its indispensable partnerships with over fifteen faith groups and congregations across the Bay Area, such as Knitzvah and the Peninsula Metropolitan Community Church. Of these, Benicia is one of the farthest afield: more than an hour and a half by car from Pescadero. Benicia is an affluent bedroom community with a large professional class and a majority white population. Pescadero is rural, isolated and agricultural. Yet in spite of those differences, “we see ourselves as an extended family. We are two communities, linked,” says Thompson. “Puente has become integral to our church’s mission.”

Those bonds date back to Puente’s early days as a mission founded by Rev. Wendy Taylor, a UCC minister at Pescadero Community Church. The Benicia congregation invited Rev. Taylor to speak at their church. They subsequently helped gather bicycles to donate to Puente to distribute to farm workers. When Kerry Lobel took over as Executive Director, the church formalized its relationship with Puente and focused its efforts on gathering school supplies. Lobel is close with Thompson and the youth ministers at the Benicia Church.

Kerry Lobel, right, with members of Benecia Community Congregational Church and youth from Puente.
Kerry Lobel, right, with members of Benecia Community Congregational Church and youth from Puente.

"It’s been my great pleasure to watch the youth from Benicia grow up over the years, especially Sarah’s daughters Audrey and Lydia. Each year, we share a meal together, community to community, and friend to friend. Each backpack is assembled with care, each contains a personal note of encouragement. I remember our first season together — a giant truck came bearing bikes and backpacks — they just kept coming," says Lobel.

Benicia Community Congregational takes a similar hands-on approach to all its charitable giving, much of which has a strong social justice element. The congregation “adopts” several local families at Christmas and helps them with food, gifts, and whatever else they need. The church does homeless outreach once a month. Sometimes that outreach involves bringing church youth to visit homeless encampments and talk with the people who live there. It’s a reality check.

Thompson says her church values and appreciates farm workers on the South Coast and across California for the work they do to pick and pack the food her community enjoys. Farm workers have the lowest annual family incomes of any category of U.S. salaried workers. Thompson calls it “the most extreme form of charity there is.”

“We owe a great deal of gratitude to the wider Puente community, because people re working for substandard wages. They’re literally subsidizing the food we eat. So this is something we give back in the form of appreciation,” she says.


Members of Puente's Youth Program eat with members of Benicia Community Congregational Church
Members of Puente's Youth Program eat with members of Benicia

Puente’s annual school supply drive is in full swing, and the community needs your help. Each year, more than 2/3 of Pescadero and La Honda students -- nearly 250 children and youth -- need backpacks and school supplies for the coming year. Puente is asking for purchases online at, where you can select which items you would like to donate. If you would prefer to give directly to Puente, give us a call at (650) 879-1691 or visit and designate your donation for the Backpack Campaign.