TheaterMania is proud to begin a new feature entitled "Broadway Gives Back." Each segment will highlight the service work of our friends in the theater community.

Broadway veteran Paige Davis became America's sweetheart while hosting TLC's reality-television show Trading Spaces. Meanwhile, the Boeing-Boeing and Chicago star has proven that she's an actual sweetheart by donating her time to Volunteers of America's Operation Backpack, a program that provides school supplies to children in NYC's homeless and domestic violence shelters.

As the spokesperson for this cause, Davis spoke to TheaterMania about the sweaty-but-fulfilling work of volunteering with Operation Backpack.

Operation Backpack recipients
Operation Backpack recipients
(© courtesy of Volunteers of America)

You do quite a bit of philanthropy work.

I do. Of course, as anyone who has a recognizable name and face, it's a blessing to be able to bring light charities that are important and special to you. And it's also an obligation, I think, to be able to do so. But Volunteers of America and Operation Backpack is what I've dedicated the most time to.

How did you get involved with this program?

I started helping about nine years ago, in the second year of the campaign. Back then, it was just in some pop-up tents in a parking lot outside of a school, and I was trying to get the word out. Now we're collecting backpacks in the thousands. This year our goal is 15,000. And even that won't meet the entire need. But every year we up our goal — hopefully we'll even surpass it.

What is your role in Operation Backpack?

As their spokesperson, I do interviews and go on different television talk shows and news shows and spread the word. And then I participate in the actual "sort week" itself, when the corporate participants hold their drives and the public can participate by donating online or by donating actual school supplies or backpacks. Individuals can go to any Duane Reade location in all five boroughs and they will accept donations on our behalf. Then, after that period of time ends, which is on August 9th, all of the supplies end up at our sort space.

We set it all up like a big old assembly line and start stuffing backpacks. One of the most wonderful things about Operation Backpack as a school-supply drive is that our backpacks are not one-size-fits-all. We insist on grade-specific backpacks so they're all labeled from pre-K up to high school. We have a whole list from the public school system and we pack and label every backpack according to grade.

Paige Davis
Paige Davis
(© David Gordon)
Why is this project special to you?

One of the reasons I became so dedicated to Operation Backpack is that it felt good seeing something being done so well. And I think another of the reasons that I feel so committed is because Volunteers of America and its programs are designed specifically to end the cycle of poverty. All of our programs are meant to enable the clients to be released from the programs and be independent, functioning, and contributing members of their community. Operation Backpack is not just a band-aid. It's a moment in time where that child understands that someone believes in them enough to go to school and to do something with themselves.

Many children who are in our shelter system and who can't afford to have the necessary supplies to go to school the first day may feel reluctant to go to school at all because they feel embarrassed because they don't want to be found out as homeless. So to equip them with all the necessary tools also gives them the confidence to enter on that first day — to look and feel like their classmates, which we all know is so important.

What are the most difficult and fulfilling aspects of working with Operation Backpack?

The most difficult part is that it's basically manual labor. Once the backpacks are filled, they have to be delineated for all the different shelters. We'll get a list of the number of children in each shelter. They'll say, "We have this many girls in this grade and this many boys in this grade." So we literally count them all out from our big mound that we've separated and then we put them in trash bags and then you're kind of like lugging — you know, backpacks are really heavy! I feel so sad for kids nowadays! So that part of it is hard. You know, it's hot. It's sweaty. But it's also really fun. It is really fun to donate the supplies themselves or to pack a backpack because when you hold it in your hand you know that eventually it's going to go into the hands of a child. Like, the very one you're looking at, a kid is going to get.

What are some of your favorite memories of volunteering with this program in the past?

Walking down an assembly line, I've seen people grabbing for the same folder…maybe it's a Barbie folder, maybe it's a Spiderman folder, or something like that and two hands grab for the same one. Each one wants it for the backpack for their stuffing. They're making the best backpack for each kid! It can be really fun. The other thing that I often tell people is the dirty little secret about volunteering is it's the most selfish thing you can do because it's tremendously fulfilling.

And delivering the backpacks to the kids, it's like Christmas morning for them. They come downstairs and there in the common room and they get to pick the one they want. It's exciting! The smiles on their faces are really intense.

To donate to the program or to get involved with Operation Backpack, visit the website here.