Groups prepare for backpack giveaways
Costs at the start of a school year can be a burden for families living in poverty in Northwest Arkansas.
Parents have lists of paper, pencils, hand sanitizer and dry erase markers their children need for school, but affording them sometimes come with decisions of what to go without, said Kim Aaron, president of United Way of Northwest Arkansas. More than 25,000 children live in poverty in a region.
“We don’t think about the beginning of school that way,” Aaron said. “There’s an energy around starting school and going to school. For a kid in poverty, it’s one more uncomfortable, unhappy moment for them.”
The United Way’s annual school supply drive is one of several community events planned over the next three weeks to help families in need equip children with backpacks and crayons. Other organizations invite families to bring their children to receive backpacks and supplies, receive health screenings, haircuts and shoes at no cost.
A pair of events are set for Saturday. Altrusa International of Washington County has organized Parent Up for families in Greenland, Prairie Grove, Lincoln and West Fork to receive for free a backpack with school supplies, along with lunch, haircuts and a book. The event begins at 11 a.m. in the cafeteria at Prairie Grove Elementary School.
Variety Insurance will give away 500 backpacks to families during its annual backtoschool event at 10 a. m. Saturday at Shiloh Square in Springdale, said Vicky Lorenzana, who established the insurance agency that includes four employees.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” Lorenzana said, describing past events. “It’s also beautiful to see the kids come out, see smiles. It touches us.”
Last year, a mother of seven children was the first person in line at 7 a.m. for the backpacks, Lorenzana said. More than 1,000 adults and children came, including from Fayetteville and Gravette.
The idea has grown from what started as a customer appreciation event with 100 free backpacks at the company’s office on Emma Avenue, Lorenzana said. The event now has more sponsors, more backpacks and takes place in a larger venue.
“We just saw the need in the community,” Lorenzana said.
A similar need led to 140- member Farmington United Methodist Church what has become the annual Back 2 School Bonanza, set for 5 p.m. Thursday, said Mary Jane Silva, a church
“For a kid in poverty, it’s one more uncomfortable, unhappy moment for them.”
— Kim Aaron, United Way of Northwest Arkansas
member who organizes the annual event. She’s also a teacher at Jerry “Pop” Williams Elementary School in Farmington.
The event started as a back-to-school party to kickoff a new year of Sunday school classes, Silva said. Church members decided the event should be for the community. The bonanza is open to children from across Northwest Arkansas. The church doesn’t require proof of income, but children must be present.
Each year, families arrive and are in a waiting area outside, Silva said. She advised those coming to prepare for the heat. Once their number is called, the children with their parents are taken to a series of stations where they have their feet washed, receive new shoes, school supplies, health services and haircuts.
“It’s a very special thing,” Silva said. “We all look forward to doing it every year.”
United Way of Northwest Arkansas for more than a decade has collected school supplies to distribute to schools for children who don’t have what they need, Aaron said. This year’s Fill the Bus event will be Aug. 4-5 at five Walmart supercenters in Benton, Madison and Washington counties and in McDonald County, Mo.
The stores will have lists of what children need, Aaron said. Shoppers go inside to pick up school supplies and either bring them to the parked school bus or to a cardboard tower in the store.
Volunteers in the parked school buses will sort and organize the school supplies and can accept cash donations, Aaron said. The supplies go directly to the school district, and school staff make sure the products go to the children with the greatest need.
In Bentonville, the bus filled with supplies during the United Way event goes to the Bentonville School District’s student services center, said Ashley Musick, director of student services. Student volunteers unload the bus. Counselors at schools in Bentonville, Centerton and Bella Vista are invited to get supplies for their students from the center.
Needs also are communicated to schools through the district’s Bright Futures Bentonville initiative.
“Nothing’s worse than coming to school and not having supplies when everybody else does,” Musick said. “We want to make sure every student has the opportunity to have what they need.”
Families in Rogers School District also can let their school counselor or social worker know if they need help with getting supplies for their children, spokeswoman Ashley Siwiec said.
Some Rogers children also attend an annual event organized by Samaritan Community Center.
Samaritan Community Center still has 250 free tickets for families needing backpacks, said Mary Mann, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit group. Tickets are free, but are required to attend the annual Backpacks for Kids events Aug. 5 in Benton and Washington counties. The tickets provide organizers with information so they know what school supplies the child needs, she said.
The nonprofit group gives away 3,300 backpacks each year, Mann said. The event is supported by hundreds of businesses and organizations. Organizers still need 1,500 pocket folders with brads that can be taken to the Samaritan Community Center in Rogers today, Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday or in Springdale on Tuesday.
“It’s less the teachers have to worry about, and it’s less the kids have to worry about,” Mann said.