MOUNT LAUREL — For the fourth year, the United Service Organizations of Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey will partner with a local mortgage company as both groups join a national program to ease financial burdens on military families.

Freedom Mortgage Corp., which was recently designated the largest Veterans Affairs mortgage lender in the United States, began working with the Philadelphia-based Liberty USO when it became clear that the USO's back-to-school efforts to assist military kids needed "a lot of love," according to Audrey Shapiro, Freedom's vice president of public relations.

This year, the collaboration is hoping to repeat its 2016 "Rucksacks to Backpacks" campaign by collecting 1,000 backpacks in New Jersey, along with other school supplies and the providing of services like new haircuts for the start of the school year. Most schools issue their own must-have lists, but parents still have plenty of input.

"You know, do you have backpacks, do you have rulers, my son needs a calculator ... different things like that," said Kate McCloud, Liberty USO director of advancement.

One particular suggestion that's been adopted in years past is a lunch voucher, for which Liberty USO has joined forces with Subway restaurants and Coca-Cola.

Shapiro said contests among Freedom employees are part of the collection process, but so are designated drop-off sites throughout Mount Laurel. The corporation's philanthropic arm, Team Freedom Cares, is working with USOs in seven different states; their collections are given in full to those USOs, which then redistribute what's been donated.

When it's time for the children to receive their supplies, everything is laid out on tables in a central location, and the students go from table to table selecting what they want. Providing these materials helps defray back-to-school costs which can total hundreds of dollars per student.

"Most people don't join the military to become wealthy, so they tend to deal with some financial restraints, especially when you consider how often our service members move from place to place," McCloud said.

"Rucksacks to Backpacks" runs in New Jersey through Friday, Aug. 11. For more information, visit and

Patrick Lavery produces "New Jersey's First News" and is New Jersey 101.5's morning drive breaking news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email

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