Father and Sons Assemble Backpacks Filled with Sanitation Supplies to Help Those in Need

Robert Charland and his stepsons fill the bags with things like hand sanitizer and masks to distribute to homeless people and others at risk

Robert Charland
Photo: Robert Charland

Robert Charland, a Massachusetts auto mechanic who also runs a youth bike distribution foundation, has brought his volunteer work home to help those in his community as they struggle to take precautions against COVID-19.

Charland, 47, and his two stepsons, Rudy, 13, and 12-year-old Vinny, who has Down syndrome, have set up shop in their West Springfield house each day, making mini-backpacks at their dining room table.

The bags are filled with sanitation supplies that are in hot demand — hand sanitizer, masks and gloves, along with basic first aid kits. The family trio have thus far created close to 100 backpacks and will continue to make more until their supplies run out, Charland tells PEOPLE.

These clear, coronavirus-focused backpacks will be put inside larger, full-sized backpacks and donated to local law enforcement, who are distributing them to homeless and other low-income people in the region who might not otherwise be able to afford these crucial supplies.

The larger backpacks contain dry foods like granola bars and nuts, bottled water, clean socks, a blanket, deodorant and other personal hygiene products — all aimed at helping those who fear for their safety.

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“This is one simple way I can help to slow down the spread of this virus,” says Charland. “They’ll be able to protect themselves more and sanitize their hands more often.”

Charland has been taking care of his stepsons, who are out of school, while his wife continues her work at a nursing home. He believes the exercise in giving back is a lesson all its own.

“It’s about showing my kids this stuff and how it’s going to poor families, to our homeless, people who don’t have access to it,” he says. “They are learning how wearing the face masks, cleaning their hands [is] helping to save other people’s lives.”

It’s also educating the boys on broader needs in the community.

“Here, like many places, our shelves are bare. And with so many businesses closing, our soup kitchens that normally serve homeless and low-income people are closed down,” he says.

Charland has a plethora of supplies at his bike shop — and because it’s closed due to the virus, he’s brought them home and is putting them to good use as best he can.

His shop has given away more than 1,400 bikes in 21 low-income schools in partnership with law enforcement units in Massachusetts and Connecticut who join in to provide bike safety and education.

In addition, bike volunteers there have assembled more than 900 backpacks that officers carry with them to give out as a goodwill gesture within their communities.

“We’ve been collecting supplies for two years and we’re going to use those and give these out as fast as we can to as many police departments as we can,” Charland says. “Using law enforcement is key because the officers know where these people who need them are located.”

As the weeks of being homebound with his children continue, Charland is continuing his donations to help police departments where many officers have also fallen ill.

“Most of the police departments around here weren’t ready for this,” Charland says of the virus and its rapid spread. “We’ve been outfitting local departments all around here. The bigger departments were pretty set, but the smaller departments needed them. So we’ve been working to help them.”

Charland says he’s also working on building some adult-sized bikes for people who might use public transportation, but are scared of doing so and becoming infected.

“There are many people here who could now use some basic transportation, and I want to do what I can to help them by fixing up some bikes,” he says. “We need to look out for one another now more than ever. And I just want to do my part.”

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