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September 04, 2013

School Drive Equips Students to Learn

by Faiza Elmasry

In a makeshift distribution center at a middle school in Reston, Virginia, dozens of volunteers are hard at work organizing school supplies.

“[We’re] organizing and stocking boxes based on what supplies each school needs," said Natalie Toma, 17. "Then the schools come and get all the supplies."

Volunteering with “Collect for Kids,” a county-wide back-to-school drive, has made Toma more aware of poverty in one of the wealthiest areas around the nation’s capital.

“Personally I didn’t realize how many people are actually in need of school supplies that can’t afford it,” she said.

But Susan Ungrer realized the scope of the problem many years ago. The former elementary school teacher started to collect and distribute free school supplies out of her garage before founding her own nonprofit, Kids R First, 18 years ago.

“We reached a limit with our organization at this point with a certain number of board members, certain amount of money we were able to raise, and we reached to certain locations around Fairfax County,” Ungrer said.

That’s when she came up with the idea to combine forces with other groups and launch one big drive that would help more students.

Jay Garant, of the Fairfax County school system, said the county’s role is to help coordinate the effort.

“We have about 11 not for profits and maybe five or six for-profit companies involved," he said. "The goal here is let them keep their passion and do the same things the way they have done it, but let’s be more efficient in breaking down redundancy and pay more attention to who is covering what. It’s all about communication.”

Communication among the participants increases the project’s impact. Jennifer Rose said an exchange of ideas led her non-profit, Our Daily Bread, to ask donors for cash rather than supplies.

“Quite frankly donors today are very busy," said Rose. "They don’t have time to go shopping. So we’re able to stretch their donation dollars far better than they could by taking advantage of sales.”

This year, Collect for Kids helped 19,500 students at 90 schools. And it’s not a one size fits all campaign. Ungerer said each school receives exactly what its students need.

“In the spring of every year, we send out an order form and each school that is part of our program sends in a custom order," she said. "So it’s all grade appropriate.”

Langston Hughes Middle School Principal Aimee Monticchio said Collect for Kids is important to her families.

“Between our 7th and 8th grade," she said, "we give out over 200 backpacks a year.”

Forty percent of the students at Terraset Elementary use the supplies. The impact of having new school supplies can be both academic and psychological.

“It makes a huge difference in what children, and how children, are able to learn, when they come in and have what they need in good condition," she said. "And they’re able to walk in proudly on the first day of school instead of walking ashamed that they don’t have what they need.”

Parents are relieved to know that they can come to the school and pick up backpacks full of the required supplies.

"As a parent, I think it's amazing,” Ivonee Cedeno said. “It's very helpful to a lot of children. They are excited, can't wait to go back to school. They got the new supplies and they are ready."

Knowing that an estimated 47,000 Fairfax County students need the help is what motivates Collect for Kids to continue reaching out every year.