A record-breaking event benefitting the community’s foster children took place in mid-July. Arizona Friends of Foster Children’s 5th Annual Backpack Drive scored big, collecting 6,000 backpacks stuffed with a variety of school supplies for the most vulnerable children. This generous display of community unites four nonprofits, local businesses and Phoenix residents to ensure foster children are outfitted with everything they need for the new school year.

Edson Salas, the mastermind behind the event, remembers growing up poor in El Paso, Texas. His mom raised him, his two siblings and two cousins as a single parent on a meager salary. 

“As a kid, I remember going to backpack drives. I remember going to toy drives. I remember going to the food bank,” he said.

He carried these memories with him when he moved to Phoenix in 2001, at 19 years old.

Salas graduated from ASU and worked hard to find his professional niche. After four years as a realtor, he opened his own real estate business, Equity Executives Real Estate Group. Now married with his own family, he recognizes even more how those drives enhanced his childhood. 

“When I was old enough to realize that somebody was giving us this stuff - other people - I always knew that one day I would do the same thing,” he said.

In 2012, Salas decided to rally support to collect backpacks, not yet knowing to whom the recipients would be. He just knew he needed to do this and called on everyone, from clients to neighbors to colleagues, to help. As donations came pouring in, he thought of providing the backpacks to children who weren’t in the limelight, who had yet to be “adopted” by any particular group.  

One of his friends, foster parent to five children, knew just the organization who could benefit: Arizona Friends of Foster Children (AFFCF). Since 1984, AFFCF has provided direct assistance to fulfill unmet needs of children in foster care in Arizona. The group provides money for tutoring, summer camp, extra-curricular lessons and many other opportunities for foster children. 

Arizona has one of the highest percentages of children in foster care in the nation. Every day in Arizona approximately 34 children enter the foster care system. “Most children come into foster care with little more than the clothes on their back or what they can carry in a trash bag,” according to AFFCF.  

Salas facilitated the event for the first three years with AFFCF as the beneficiary, but then recognized the opportunity to collaborate with other nonprofits serving the same demographic. Last year, he reached out to Arizona Helping Hands, Aid to Adoption of Special Kids (AASK), and Voices for Casa Children. Now they too assist with this mammoth operation and their foster children clients are beneficiaries.  

It’s easy to see Salas’ passion for his work, which enabled him to recruit not only other organizations but others in the business community, such as Executive Council Charities, to be a part of this event. His eyes light up when he talks about that first year distributing 450 backpacks to AFFCF families. 

“It was amazing. That’s always my favorite part...giving them out,” he said.  

From 450 at first to 6,000 this year is truly scaling up and creating a giving legacy. Salas, a highly successful realtor and AFFCF board member, never forgot where he came from and how he was helped.  

As Arizona’s most vulnerable children receive their backpacks – and an increased chance for success in school – Salas is surely planting the seed in another young mind to pay it forward for the next generation.