Debra Roberts, of Wyndmoor, sits surrounded by young volunteers at Cradles to Crayons.

by Paula M. Riley

Long before children returned to school in September, Wyndmoor resident Debra Roberts was filling backpacks. In her capacity as the new director of Individual and Family Philanthropy at Cradles to Crayons, she participated in the Ready for School backpackathon.

In just under 75 minutes, 500 corporate representatives filled 22,000 backpacks with all the essential school supplies and items that children need to go to school.

“The beauty of this is that we don’t just give them one (backpack),” Roberts said. “For as long as they need assistance, they can get refills for the backpacks. Instead of just giving out products, we stay with the product and ensure we can provide essentials throughout the entire year.”

Cradles to Crayons works to address what Roberts calls “mind numbing” poverty affecting children in Philadelphia. She tossed out the raw statistics of children in our region: One in five young Philadelphians live in poverty, Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate among the country’s largest cities, and 400,000 children live in poverty across the five- county region.

Targeting children aged birth through 12, Cradles to Crayons provides essential items needed to thrive at home, school or play. These products are collected in community drives or through corporate donations, then are processed and packaged by volunteers and distributed through a network of more than 275 social service agencies and school partners. Modeled after Cradles to Crayons Boston, the Philadelphia location was established by Wyndmoor resident Jennifer Case more than six years ago.

Today, Cradles to Crayons collects products from communities across the region and hosts 1400 volunteers a month in its 17,000 square foot warehouse in Conshohocken. A much larger space than its original location in Horsham, the warehouse accommodates large groups, such as corporations, church or community groups for community service projects and team-building exercises.

Roberts joins these activities, but her central role is as director of Individual and Family Philanthropy – a newly created position. She is charged with developing a family philanthropy program and thrilled with the opportunities she can offer local families.

“We are the only nonprofit that will serve a volunteer as young as 6 years old,” Roberts said.

Opportunities abound for young children and their parents to volunteer together. They collect products, sorting and repacking them into a backpack or an “Outfit Pack” – a week’s worth of clothing, shoes and products for a child.

Roberts believes there is something so magical and yet so simple in this form of service, as children are helping other children. Young people appreciate how important it is to get a new notebook for school, a good book, a favorite outfit or a super-fun toy.

Ten year old Eimilie Scibelli, of Wyndmoor, participated in a Family Volunteer Day with her mother and younger sister.

“It was so much fun to assemble orders for children in need,” Scibelli said. “Cradles to Crayons is a fantastic organization. I will definitely be back with my fifth-grade class to do this again.”

The family component is most compelling to Roberts. Countless lessons are learned when children see that they can make a difference and when they witness their parents’ commitment to volunteerism. Roberts hopes they are creating lifelong habits.

“So much research has examined the likelihood of what happens to a child who volunteers when they are younger than 12 years old,” said Roberts. “It shows that this (service in childhood) increases the likelihood of giving and volunteering as adults.”

Throughout her entire career Roberts has been connecting people to a mission that resonates with them. Her former roles have mostly involved children and families.

“I have always had a job in which I’ve been blessed to be able to look at families in crisis,” she said.

Before joining Cradles to Crayons she was the director of Gift of Life Family House and the executive director of Ronald McDonald House, Philadelphia. Both facilities offer lodging and services for families with members who are ill.

Closer to home, Roberts created the Supper at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church. This volunteer meal project offers free, home-cooked meals to 100 guests on Wednesdays, twice a month. Volunteers create menus, purchase ingredients and prepare, serve and clean up the meal. Everyone is welcome at the table, and those in need often sit beside those providing the meal.

She relates this to Cradles to Crayons service model of directly impacting the lives of others in the community by relying on volunteers and partners. Roberts is quick to point out that poverty is rampant well outside the city borders and cites a 117 percent increase in poverty in Montgomery County, which she feels is sometimes harder to deal with in the suburbs.

“Often families in the suburbs don’t have the coping skills when they hit a bad or tough patch,” she said. “There isn’t the family support or knowledge of resources.”

Roberts promises that Cradles to Crayons will be there to help these and other families. She expects the organization will soon outgrow its warehouse and will continue to see increases in both volunteers and clients.

Last winter, Cradles to Crayons received 17,000 requests for coats, hats, gloves and boots. Looking towards winter, Roberts invites families to participate in the Gear Up for Winter campaign by making a financial donation or donating clothing, boots and other supplies necessary for children to survive and thrive during the winter season.

Upcoming Family Volunteer Days are on Tuesday, Oct. 29, from 6 to 8 p.m., and on Saturday, Nov. 2, from 2 to 4 p.m., and the Un-gala family fundraiser is on Dec.7 and includes one work shift in a circus-like atmosphere with games, entertainment, prizes and lunch. For further information, go to