Boston sorts and disinfects donated art supplies for public school children at Northeastern’s Matthews Arena

Pamela Leins, deputy commissioner of the Boston Centers for Youth and Families, unpacks donated art supplies at Matthews Arena to be disinfected and donated to Boston Public School children. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

On Wednesday, Northeastern’s Matthews Arena was bustling with activity. But this time, it wasn’t the sound of basketball sneakers squeaking on the hardwood, or ice skates swooshing to a stop that emanated from the arena—it was the urgent beep of forklifts backing up, the thud of boxes being unloaded and opened, and the sizzle of them being sprayed down with disinfectant.

These weren’t the sounds of a sporting event or concert; nothing of the sort has been held in Matthews since the university, following public health authorities’ guidelines, closed the Boston campus. No, these were the sounds of 37 pallets of art supplies, donated to the City of Boston, being unloaded and sterilized.

When city officials got news early this week that, EdVestors, a school improvement organization, and its donors were sending an 18-wheeler full of art supplies for families, there was only one problem: Where would they unload and sort the supplies?

That’s when Northeastern stepped up.

“We thought Matthews Arena would be a perfect place,” said David Frazier, who is the senior director of athletic facilities and central event services at Northeastern. “We don’t have a loading dock, but we do have forklifts, and this was a great thing to do to help the kids of our city.”

Box upon box of art supplies were unloaded from the big rig that pulled into the arena parking lot on Wednesday. Each box contained a number of small supply cases stocked with colored pencils, markers, modeling clay, stickers, paper, and more, to be distributed to Boston Public School children throughout the city.

Northeastern facilities staff operated the forklifts that were required to unload the boxes from the truck, then tied ropes and chains around the boxes in order to pull them into the arena.

“We’re used to this kind of operation for concerts and events here,” Frazier said. “It’s great to be able to do it to help keep kids stimulated and busy in these times.”

Once the supplies were unloaded from the truck, sterilized, moved into the arena, and sterilized again, volunteers from the city could safely organize them based on where they’d end up going.

“As soon as we reached out, Northeastern answered with a ‘yes,’ the whole way,” said Megan Rohrer, who works in the Boston Planning and Development Agency, and who is a member of the city’s Food Access Task Force. “We had a hard time finding places with a loading dock or a forklift, and Northeastern was so wonderful about making it work.”

And, she added, even when officials found a big enough physical space, the logistics could be a challenge.

“No one has been in this kind of pandemic situation before, and we’re all trying to figure things out together, on the fly,” Rohrer said. “That’s where Northeastern came in so clutch for us—the attitude was always, ‘You’re going to help Boston kids, then we’ll help you figure out how to do it.’” 

City officials already have a network of locations—including various YMCA buildings and community centers—from which they distribute free meals to children and teenagers in the city. Rohrer said they’ll distribute the art supplies at those locations, as well as delivering some directly to the houses of homebound families. Boston Centers for Youth and Families will also distribute some supplies, she said.

The YMCA on Huntington Avenue, just steps from Northeastern’s Boston campus, is one of the major locations for such food and supply distribution, Rohrer said, making Matthews Arena an even more ideal landing site for the art supplies.

“We couldn’t have imagined a better partner,” Rohrer said.