Judy Pearlstone

Judy Pearlstone works with volunteer Sarah Cohen at Project Backpack during BSKI’s Mitzvah Day. Photo: Mike Sherwin

Patricia Corrigan

A schoolteacher for more than 44 years, a woman who has served as an officer and on boards for organizations at the local, regional and national levels, a compassionate person who has worked with new Americans, a focused individual who has successfully raised funds for several groups, Judy Pearlstone never imagined she would run a business.

“I am,” she says, wonderment evident in her voice. Pearlstone is the founder, executive director and president of Project Backpack St. Louis.

While serving on the national board of NA’AMAT USA, Pearlstone was asked to look into the issue of domestic violence. She contacted ALIVE (Alternatives to Living In Violent Environments). When Pearlstone learned just how widespread domestic violence is, she quickly became involved with the organization.

At the time, Pearlstone was teaching full time at H. F. Epstein Hebrew Academy. She learned from a security guard at the school that most children removed from their homes bring nothing with them. “I couldn’t stand for that,” recalls Pearlstone. “Sometimes there is that moment in life when you know what you are going to do, and this was it.”

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With a couple of friends, Pearlstone started Project Backpack in 1999 as a local social service project of NA’AMAT. The women packed 20 backpacks with sleepwear, socks, toiletries, school supplies, books and toys to help children make the transition from a troubled home to a foster home. They took the backpacks to the University City Police Department. Today, Project Backpack provides backpacks to police departments, social service agencies and domestic violence shelters throughout the metropolitan area.

“For the kids in our emergency shelter, the backpacks provide another level of comfort, and they serve as an equalizer for those in school,” says Erin Ercoline, executive director of ALIVE. “As for Judy – she is a fantastic volunteer. When she gets committed, it’s 100 percent.”

Two years ago, Pearlstone and Project Backpack were honored with a “What’s Right With the Region!” award from Focus St. Louis. Pearlstone credits her board and half a dozen dedicated volunteers to making Project Backpack a success. “Our first year, we packed a total of 60,” says Pearlstone. “Usually, now we put together between 200 and 250 a month, but in the past two months, we’ve packed 500.”

Boys Hope Girls Hope provides Project Backpack with a warehouse in Bridgeton where the packing takes place. Volunteers form the “Backpack Brigade,” packing items that are new and age- and gender-appropriate. “We know the backpacks help the kids, and they also enable the police or social worker to make contact. That’s so important,” says Pearlstone.

“Without question, this has been the most incredible journey I have ever been on.”

Judy Pearlstone

AGE: 73 

FAMILY:  Married to Howard Pearlstone, four children (Melanie, 52; Tony, 50; Scott, 49; and John, 47), 13 grandchildren 

HOME: Creve Coeur 

OCCUPATION: Substitute teacher at H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy

POINT OF PRIDE: Pearlstone taught David Makovsky — director of The Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process — when he was in grade school.