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By Deana Carpenter
Children carrying brand new backpacks filled with shiny new notebooks and pens on the first day of school is a familiar site this time of year. However, some children and their families may not have the luxury of purchasing the necessary supplies themselves.
According to a National Retail Federation survey, the average American family will spend $688 on back-to-school expenses, which is up from last year’s figure of $603.
A few South Hills-area organizations have made it part of their mission to provide the supplies students need to start the school year on a positive note.
Starting in late July, volunteers at SHIM (South Hills Interfaith Ministries) began organizing the thousands of donated school supplies, which included about 600 backpacks.
On a regular food pantry day in early August, children selected their own backpacks and filled them with the supplies they needed most.
According to Julie Davidson, family assistance coordinator at SHIM, children stuffed their backpacks with crayons, markers, scissors, notebooks, pencils, pencil cases, pencil sharpeners, highlighters, binders, erasers and folders. Children could also pick out two items from the “miscellaneous” table, which included lunch boxes, book covers, staplers and banks. The value of the backpacks and the supplies was estimated at around $50.
“We had a really good response from the community this year,” Davidson said. Donations were up so much from past years that SHIM was able to increase what the kids could put in their backpacks.
SHIM volunteer Diane Jungquist of Lawrence said it was the most she’d seen donated in six years of volunteering with the organization.
SHIM’s donations came from churches, individuals and businesses.
In Mt. Lebanon, churchgoers from Mt. Lebanon United Presbyterian Church have participated in “Mission Possible.” The church calls it a “Mission trip to the South Hills.” This year marked the fifth year for the church’s backpack program.
Church members Noelle Conover and Kathi Workman organized the backpack program this year.
“We try to find need in the South Hills,” Conover said.
The church donated the backpacks to kids ages 5 to 12 whose families use the Brookline Food Pantry. Backpacks were also donated to the Head Start program at Brookline Boulevard Presbyterian Church.
With less than $600, Workman purchased more than 40 backpacks and the supplies for which to fill them. She said she purchased the backpacks at a local discount store for $5 and watched the advertisements for good deals on school supplies at big box stores.
“She’s very frugal,” Conover said of Workman.
Workman said she made sure to purchase a variety of designs and colors of backpacks so that the kids would all have something different on the first day of school.
A group of about 10 fourth- and fifth-graders, or as Conover refers to them, “tweeners,” helped to stuff the backpacks earlier this summer. Included in the backpacks were a binder, a notebook, a folder, crayons, markers, pencils, a pencil sharpener, book covers, a glue stick and pens.
“We try to go all out,” Conover said, saying the backpacks were completely full of supplies.
“It’s a good project for them,” Workman said of the young members of the church.
Conover said of the children filling the backpacks, “They were like worker bees.” Conover added this year was the first year they had the “tweeners” fill the backpacks.
“We would love to do even more of it,” Conover said of donating school supplies. She said in addition to the backpacks donated locally, 10 were donated to students from Kenya. Those backpacks were distributed by church-goers, who traveled there on a mission trip earlier this month.
Conover said last year several backpacks were donated to students in Mexico. She said if kids don’t have school supplies there they are unable to go to school. She added that when she gave a backpack to a little girl in Mexico she cried “because she never had a pink pencil before.”
“I just feel really good about it,” Workman said about donating the backpacks and school supplies. “In addition to having food, they have a backpack to go back to school.”
The Homeless Children’s Education Fund (HCEF), based in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, also stuffed backpacks and distributed them to homeless children in Pittsburgh through its Gear for Grades program. For the past 10 years, Citizens Bank has teamed up with the HCEF for the program. According to Carrie Pavlik, education services manager at HCEF, Citizens Bank provides the backpacks. The school supplies come from community donations that people drop off at local banks.
“Many companies and clubs organize their own school supplies drives for the event. It is truly a community effort,” Pavlik said.
Each backpack is filled with age-appropriate school supplies, Pavlik said. She said standard items include pens, pencils, folders, notebooks, crayons, markers, glue sticks, colored pencils, pencil cases, scissors, rulers, erasers, pencil sharpeners an flash drives.
Once filled, the backpacks will then be loaded onto school buses and delivered directly to homeless housing providers that partner with the Homeless Children’s Education Fund.
Backpacks were delivered to homeless agencies in South Side, Duquesne, McKeesport and Clairton. The agency will likely give backpacks to under-served, though not necessarily homeless, children in the Duquesne School District, Elizabeth Forward High School, Wesley Spectrum Highland School, Concord Elementary School, Carlynton School District and Propel McKeesport.
Backpacks were distributed to local children on Aug. 19.