Sikh community chips in for school supplies 400 students outfitted with loaded backpacks With a new school year approaching, Veterans Elementary School ESOL teacher Simarjeet Sandhu saw the perfect opportunity for the members of her Sikh temple to reach out to the community, from which many had grown isolated in the years since Sept. 11, 2001. Sandhu, a member of Gurudwara Guru Gyan Sagar, a Sikh temple in Burtonsville, decided to outfit about 400 backpacks with supplies for needy Howard County students. Community service is one of the major tenets of the Sikh religion, a monotheistic religion founded in the 15th century. Sandu formed the Sikh Outreach Program this year to allow the younger members of the congregation to fulfill their community service obligation. Although the temple is in Montgomery County, most of the temple's congregants, Sandhu said, are from Howard County "We all believe in helping the community," said program volunteer Paramvir Sidhu, of Dayton, a rising junior at River Hill High School. "I thought more of humanity. It's my job," said Pratishtha Khanna, 18, of North Laurel and a recent graduate of Reservoir High School, of her involvement with her temple's outreach program. Because the religion dictates that a member's hair must be protected against the elements and kept clean, the Sikh community is identifiable by the turbans worn by male members. Those turbans, temple members said, make them a target for discrimination. Many people confuse Sikhs with Muslims, whom they associate with terrorism, particularly after Sept. 11, 2001, Sandu said. "We've been afraid to leave our community doors," Sandhu said of the Sikh community post-Sept. 11. "Our community is basically scared." That fear, she said, had caused the Sikh community to become isolated, and giving backpacks to needy school children was one way the temple could overcome that isolation. $5,000 raised The Sikh Outreach Program raised about $5,000 for the backpacks and members met at least once a week since July to put together the backpacks, which eventually numbered 401. The backpacks were outfitted with notebooks, scissors, markers, a calculator, pencils, folders, erasers and more. On Aug. 15, those members distributed 70 backpacks to Veterans' students at the Charleston Manor Apartments, in Ellicott City. The distribution was well-received by both parents and students. "I think it is a good thing," said Melissa Barrera, who has two children attending Veterans Elementary. "The economy is bad." "This way, I get to buy clothes instead of backpacks," said Lauren Howard, whose son will be attending first grade at Veterans. "I think it is really nice of the Sikhs," Saksham Awasthi, 11, said. "I got a great calculator ... (and) the right stuff to start school again." School administrators said that while they try to provide supplies for those in need, they are grateful for the additional help this year. "With these hard economic times, it's hard to provide school supplies," assistant principal Kelley Hough said. "We are so appreciative ... I think it's a phenomenal program." The remaining backpacks will be distributed at a later date to Longfellow, Bollman Bridge and Swansfield elementary schools and River Hill High School. Extras will go to families that attend Our Daily Bread, a hot meal program in Baltimore where the Sikh Outreach Program frequently volunteers.