In Shaky Economy, Families Turn to Nonprofits for School Supplies

Back to school
Back to school

Gregory, 8, is psyched about his new calculator, while his sister Sadiah, 10, is particularly enthralled with her new pens.

Sadiah didn't know the pens glowed in the dark until her father, Gregory Woods, 48, discovered them gleaming one night when the kids were in bed. "I said, 'Little Mama,' -- I call her Little Mama because she favors my Mom -- 'they glow in the dark,'" Woods says. "She smiled and said, 'That's cool.'"

The pens and the calculator came in a backpack filled with things like new pencils, notebooks and folders from the Jerry Gamble Boys & Girls Club's back-to-school celebration in Minneapolis.

"The kids love it," says Woods, a single father who works as a driver for a transportation company during the day and mentors at a recreational facility several nights a week.

Pitching In

With the back-to-school season in full swing, the Boys & Girls Clubs' school-supply drive is one of many programs underway now across the country -- spearheaded by nonprofit groups, corporations, local charities and churches -- designed to help those in need.

"In trying to work hard to provide for your family, the Boys & Girls Club has been a blessing," Woods says. "I don't know what I would do without them."

As for the free backpacks stuffed with school supplies, "you'd be surprised how much that helps," he says.

In addition to local programs, Boys & Girls Clubs of America in July kicked off its "National School Supply Drive: Staples for Students" campaign together with Staples (SPLS), the office-supplies retailer. The partnership has raised nearly $2 million since it launched in 2008.

This year, the national drive includes a partnership with, a group that promotes youth volunteerism, as well ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars. The stars of the ABC show are urging teens throughout the country to collect school supplies for needy kids and drop them off at their nearest Staples store before Sept. 17.

Sponsored Links

Staples is the school-supply drive's big national sponsor among a patchwork of donors that includes corporations, local donors, grass-roots organizations and individuals.

Importance of Academics

In the run-up to the school season, these supply drives are intended, not only to ease the burden on financially-disadvantaged families, but also to send the message that academic success is tied to economic security.

"Boys & Girls Clubs are typically located in neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates and serve kids with the greatest needs," Terryl McKaye, vice president of marketing and communications with Boys & Girls Clubs of Twin Cities, tells DailyFinance.

"Many live within an environment with failing schools, where the grade rates are at a dismal level. Our big push is to try to make sure these kids are prepared and ready, and we're there to support them so they can succeed," she says. "These are kids who really want to learn and be involved."

Although the recession might be officially over, with the economy rebounding in fits and starts, "our families are the last to be affected positively by that," she says. "We want to also take some stress off the parents," many who are struggling to pay for food and housing, and don't have the money for extras like school supplies.

While Woods says he feels blessed to have a steady job, his work hours have been cut back. And when the local government was shut down for 10 days, "that stopped a lot of rides," he says, which put a strain on family finances. "I'm trying to make sure I pay my bills, take care of my kids properly, make sure they have enough to eat," he says.

A Growing Need

Local chapters of United Way Worldwide also run school-supply drives as part of the organization's June 21 Day of Action activities, a push to get Americans to volunteer in their communities.

Although United Way's school supply efforts vary by region, the organization recommends that its local chapters first gather information from community partners about what the local needs are, how supplies can be dispersed most effectively, and then recruit partners, such as area businesses, employees, schools, after-school programs and volunteer groups.

While kids from low-income families are the most likely recipients of these school-supply drives, "more children are falling into this category," Sal Fabens, director of public relations for United Way Worldwide, tells DailyFinance.

It's a sign of the times.

The recessionary climate and bleak job picture has meant more families are finding themselves in economic trouble.

In the last two years, United Way has seen a spike in calls to 2-1-1, its national social service hotline that guides those in need to organizations that offer food, housing, employment, health-care assistance and other services.

Callers include people who have lost their jobs and been unable to find another one -- often for the first time in their careers -- as well as people who now have less work, and lower paychecks as a result, Fabens says.

School Supplies Boost Self Esteem

Back to school supplies
Back to school supplies

Glow-in-the-dark pens and a nifty new calculator can go a long way in stoking a kid's healthy self-image.

"Kids look forward to stuff like that," Woods says. "Especially when they see other kids have them and they don't."

And a lack of basic school supplies can create "clouds of inferiority in their mental skies," to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr.

When a kid shows up to school without the basic necessities, even if it's through no fault of their own, they often feel lost, stigmatized and like they don't belong, McKaye says.

"It's about providing equal resources to all children," she says, noting that new school supplies are kind of rite of passage of childhood that give kids a sense of pride and a feeling of academic readiness.

As Fabens puts it, "When kids from low income families don't have adequate school supplies, it can lead them to disconnect...can lead to poor performance and can affect their long-term success" and eventually put them at risk of dropping out.

Indeed, United Way's school-supply drive is also designed to shine a spotlight on its U.S. goal of cutting the number of teens who drop out of high school in half, she says. While the national organization doesn't measure the scope of the locally run school-supply programs, the programs seem to be successful and catching on quickly, she says.

"Remember your first box of crayons?" McKaye says. "We can't expect kids to learn and do well if they don't have the tools to learn."

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