Groups pre­pare for back­pack give­aways

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - BRENDA BERNET

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.

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