When people grow up without facing significant adversity, they often take the basics for granted. However, when this man realized just how lucky he was, he couldn’t sit by and watch less fortunate kids struggle.
Matthew Kurtzman grew up in Wilmette, Illinois. He had everything one could hope for as a child.
He went to a good school and had caring, involved parents. His father coached his basketball team, and his mother was a den mother for the Cub Scouts.
His neighborhood was safe, and he could go outside without any fear. He could play outdoors, and walk to school by himself to his grade and junior high schools.
He was unaware of the problems the kids of inner-city Chicago faced.
After finishing his education, Kurtzman began his career as a production coordinator for the film unit at “Saturday Night Live,” and then pursued a career in marketing and advertising.
He continued a successful career with esteemed firms, but wasn’t entirely fulfilled.
In 2002, Kurtzman was a partner at an advertising agency in Northfield, Illinois, when he realized what was missing in his life.
The Community Currency Exchange Association of Illinois was a client of his. The association had a history of community service, but he noticed that they didn’t have a program that was truly theirs that illustrated their engagement with the community.
Kurtzman didn’t simply want to help a client, he wanted to make a real impact.
“I was looking for something that I felt was universal in need and appeal,” Kurtzman told Humanity.
There are many worthy causes to engage in, but Kurtzman recognized education as one of our societal pillars.
Kurtzman quickly learned that the education and support he received as a child was not available in urban Chicago.
“I recognized how fortunate I was in that arena, growing up in a privileged suburb … the contrast of living in the city was striking,” Kurtzman explained.
According to Kurtzman, 1.2 million children in Illinois live in low-income households.
Many of these children and their families can’t afford the most basic school supplies like notebooks, pens, or pencils.
“Why I do what I do [now] is exactly that reason. Because I didn’t have that adversity in most aspects of my life,” said Kurtzman.
Kurtzman created a program to provide school supplies to underprivileged children for the Community Currency Exchange Association of Illinois in 2002.
The program did so well that the Community Currency Exchange Association made the program an individual nonprofit in 2010. Kurtzman would become the executive director, and later the CEO. In 2015 the program changed its name to Back 2 School Illinois.
Back 2 School Illinois accepts donations from individuals, businesses, and fundraisers to finance free school supply kits for underprivileged students.
The non-profit organization’s Build-A-Kit program also ships supplies in bulk to a company or an organization so they can put the kits together themselves.
The impact of Back 2 School is Illinois is more quantifiable and visible than for many other charities or organizations.
Back 2 School Illinois has provided over 4.7 million school supplies to Chicago students since its founding in 2010.
However for Kurtzman, there’s a lot of work still to be done.
“You would think I would be elated on how much we’re doing and how much positive impact we’re having. At the same time, the deeper you get into this the more need you see.”
The basics of education are crucial, but the issue in Chicago and elsewhere in the U.S. is bigger than that.
“As a society, everything ties back to education. The bad choices we make as a society are because of lack of education,” Kurtzman explained. “And when I say education I mean in its broadest sense. I don’t just mean reading, writing, and arithmetic.”
Education is critical for being able to form a society that can engage in productive discourse Kurtzman explained.
Without a broad education, people aren’t able to understand other points of view, and aren’t open-minded to alternative ideas.
“People look for reinforcement of their existing mindset,” Kurtzman said.
Kurtzman believes if society can solve the problem of education, then it can begin solving other societal issues.
Kurtzman also plans to expand Back 2 School Illinois nationally.
“You solve the problem of education, you solve every other problem. The biggest return on investment is through investing in education,” Kurtzman said.