Normally, thousands of volunteers would have packed Allianz Field this week to fill 40,000 backpacks with school supplies for Twin Cities students in need.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic and crowd restrictions, it’s hardly a normal year. So Greater Twin Cities United Way’s largest volunteer event of the year retooled into a virtual one for the first time in 13 years. Instead of heading for the soccer stadium in St. Paul, volunteers stayed home to fill backpacks with notebooks, crayons and other supplies in advance of a distribution day Thursday.

CEO John Wilgers said the turnout of volunteers — about 3,000 people compared with last year’s 4,000 — was stable despite the switch from an in-person Action Day event, showing that people, especially some new volunteers to United Way, are still yearning for ways to give back.

Attracting 3,000 volunteers to a remote volunteering initiative “I think is super successful,” Wilgers said. “The other thing we’ve maybe done is appeal to a group of volunteers who maybe otherwise wouldn’t have volunteered. ... People are searching for safe ways to engage amidst this pandemic.”

Nonprofits across Minnesota have reworked volunteer events during the pandemic, with many shifting to activities volunteers can do at home or online. Despite that, some nonprofits report a surge in the number of Minnesotans who want to help and are volunteering for the first time.

Wilgers said the popularity of virtual activities during COVID-19 means that, once the outbreak is over and United Way resumes in-person events, they’ll still include a virtual option for volunteers.

On Thursday, more than 80 nonprofits and school districts will pick up 40,000 backpacks at Allianz Field to give to students (people can donate through Thursday or log on at noon Thursday for a virtual celebration at After volunteers put together 3,000 backpacks, United Way used donations to buy the remaining 37,000 backpacks pre-filled with supplies.

Because of the pandemic, Minnesota’s largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin, is doing a hybrid model with two days a week in class this fall, while St. Paul and Minneapolis districts are doing remote learning only. But even with in-person learning scaled back or eliminated, Wilgers said, students still need notebooks and school supplies. In fact, he added, the need for help affording school supplies is greater than ever as the economic crisis during COVID-19 worsens, forcing families to make cuts to make ends meet.

“Those decisions are becoming more difficult with COVID-19,” Wilger said.

Across the state, food shelves have seen an increase of people in need, especially first-time visitors. Researchers say the crisis will peak in September to 735,000 Minnesotans who are food insecure, or without consistent access to enough food. That’s 13% of the state’s population and 130,000 more people than after the 2008 recession.

With schools doing distance learning, students won’t be able to share items such as calculators, said Julie Richards at the Brooklyn Bridge Alliance for Youth. She requested 600 backpacks from United Way, but will get 400 for students in Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center.

“Economically, things are tighter right now,” Richards said of organizations that help people in need.

She hopes school districts fill the gaps; some CARES Act funding to the alliance will fund headphones, lap desks and other key supplies.

United Way estimates 100,000 students in the metro can’t afford school supplies. Since shifting Action Day five years ago to partner with Minnesota’s pro sports teams and tackle the need for school supplies, the nonprofit has expanded the initiative each year — from 9,000 backpacks in 2016 to 40,000 last year.

United Way set a goal to fill 100,000 backpacks by 2021. But Wilgers said that mark will likely be delayed now.

“That’s going to be hard,” he said. “Even if it’s not next year, this is something we can work toward coming close to solving. We’ll see what next year brings.”