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Friday, July 23, 2010
Updated: July 24, 4:27 PM ET
Dignity and hope in a backpack


CARMEL, Ind. -- Go back with me to the first day of school. Remember the infinite newness? Every year, everything was new. Even if the kids were the same, you still got butterflies. It even smelled new, all those fresh backpacks and notebooks and sneakers, not yet scarred by the pen stroke of math-class boredom.

And nothing was cooler than unveiling a new Trapper Keeper emblazoned with "Transformers" or "G.I. Joe" or, my favorite, the "Dukes of Hazzard."

There's substantial dignity in that new gear.

Imagine not being able to afford it. Imagine how it makes a child feel when his or her peers have the tools to thrive, and they don't. It's a social thing as much as a functional one.

That's reality for thousands of kids around the country. And it breaks my heart. And seeing someone do something about it nearly brought me to tears this week.

I was standing in the Carmel Office Depot store behind a throng of people staring a hole through Tony Stewart, who was there to help the Office Depot Foundation dole out 5,000 backpacks to area kids in need. He had on a red shirt and looked a bit like ol' Saint Nick.

One by one, local dignitaries and activists took the microphone to offer thanks for the initiative, which, incidentally, is in its 10th year and has donated more than 2 million backpacks. First up was Mary Wong, president of the foundation and quick-trigger crier.

"This is very special, because it allows children to go back to school with dignity …" Wong said.

Then she choked up, looked over at Stewart and said, "If you say a word …"

He giggled. She did, too.

As she spoke, I was truly moved. Her words were pointed and poignant. You don't think about the impact of a backpack. Unless you don't have one.

"The best part about this is seeing the kids' smiles, knowing that this gives them dignity," Stewart said. "They don't have to start behind. They're right where they need to be. To me, it's a feeling just like winning a race, especially giving back at home. It's very special to me."

That word -- dignity -- was reiterated by several people.

Take, for example, Jacquelyn Clency, who spoke on behalf of Indiana Public Schools, which took home 1,000 packs.

"These backpacks make the kids feel good about themselves," Clency said. "These are hard times, so to be able to supply kids with what they need is tremendous. I love fast cars. I love racing. And when I read about what Tony Stewart does for Backpack Attack … I love Tony Stewart."