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Hoping for an A+ start

Backpacks, stuffed with back-to-school supplies, wait to be picked up by kids at the Salvation Army corps in Concord, N.H. This scenario represents several Army centers throughout the Eastern Territory that have taken part in “Stuff the Bus” programs and similar drives in August.

In Concord, N.H., Major Rick Starkey said the corps has provided such backpacks for more than a decade to returning students. Each school district publishes a list of required back-to-school supplies, but Starkey noted the cost can add up for some parents.

“The reality is that the people who we serve, the people who come to our programs, don’t have the money to afford all that stuff,” Starkey said. “Nobody wants to see kids go to school without the things they need. The last thing we want is for kids to be ill-prepared because their family, for whatever reason, can’t afford school supplies.

“This gives us the opportunity to give them a good backpack to carry their stuff in with the supplies inside. They don’t have to worry. They’re going to school the first day and they’ve got pens, they’ve got pencils, and they’ve got paper.”

While school doesn’t start until after Labor Day in most Northeastern states in the territory, students in Kentucky, Ohio, and parts of Pennsylvania return in August.


More than pencils and pens

Several corps in the Northeast Ohio Division (NEOSA) partnered with Walmart in the “Stuff the Bus” campaign, where shoppers purchased supplies while shopping and then dumped them in Salvation Army bins before leaving the store.

“There are thousands of children heading back to school throughout Northeast and Northwest Ohio this year, and a large percentage of them are struggling to make ends meet,” said Major Cindy-Lou Drummond, NEOSA’s divisional commander, in announcing the effort. “By donating school supplies for a child in need, you can empower families to start the school year well and achieve success in the future. It’s the boost of confidence they need when getting back to normal after a challenging year.”

In Massillon, Ohio, The Salvation Army received donations from businesses, churches, and the public, along with a grant from The Charity School of Kendal Foundation, to help more than 600 children this year.

“We decided to put that toward new shoes for the children. So each child got a $20 gift card for shoes,” said Major Linda-Jo Perks, the corps officer in Massillon.

Perks also contacted National Beauty School in nearby Canton and gave children a voucher for free haircuts. Students could also apply for a library card when they received backpacks full of school supplies.

“We get so much support,” Perks said. “Churches do drives for us; individuals go and shop. This is a community of giving back and we have an abundance of volunteers.

“It’s a great community that cares about the children and their education. We put notes in the backpacks that encourage them to have a good year. We pray over that in our women’s ministry.” Perks said the corps usually offers vision, dental, and hearing exams, as well as clothing, but COVID-19 shut all that down this year.


Haircuts, socks, underwear

Salvation Army leaders in Corning, N.Y., found that returning students sometimes need more than pencils, pens, and notebooks. Tessa Shove, the office manager and volunteer coordinator in Corning, said the corps gave away bookbags full of school supplies for several years, but found local school districts were often duplicating the effort.

“So, we decided to take a different route,” she said. “I have friends who do haircuts and what we’re offering is an outfit of clothes, socks, underwear, shoes, and haircuts.

“Socks and underwear are not something you’re going to be able to get at a used or discounted rate. These are things parents are not able to afford otherwise. We’ve seen kids in our programs here who could also use shoes and clothes.”

Corning is home to the Salvation Army’s popular after-school Kids Café and many of the children who attend are low-income. Shove was able to rally donors to meet the needs in a community that recently lost several thrift stores.

In the Western Pennsylvania Division, several corps took part in the “Stuff the Bus” campaign. The Pittsburgh Temple Worship and Service Center held a “Back to School Bash” and provided backpacks, gently used clothes, shoes, and haircuts. The corps partnered with First National Bank.

Captain Justin Caldwell, corps officer, said, “We know many families are facing continued financial pressure this year as we all continue to get ‘back to normal,’ and we are looking forward to lending support during this year’s Back-to-School Bash.”


What about the future?

The Harrisburg, Pa., Capital City Region Salvationists helped more than 300 children—a 70 percent increase since 2020. They provided the kids with backpacks, clothing vouchers, and shoes through its popular “Shoe Strut,” an annual fundraiser sponsored by the women’s auxiliary who are known as “WIN Women INvolved.”

“The kids need to get back in school and we’re here to help,” said Kathy Anderson-Martin, director of resource development.

The Salvation Army in Harrisburg hosted 106 children in its eight-week Summer Youth Enrichment (SYE) program at a local elementary school. The goal was to help kids who are in danger of repeating a grade due to learning loss this past year as a result of COVID-19. Anderson-Martin said 91 of 106 (86 percent) will move to the next grade.

“Despite the challenges of the past year, we found a way to do stuff,” she said. “We never closed. We actually did more.”

In Boston, Mass., sponsors, volunteers, and community partners came together to help The Salvation Army. More than 3,000 Boston-area students started school with backpacks full of much-needed supplies and hygiene products. The annual Back-to-School celebration, now in its 10th year, was in partnership with the city and Garden Neighborhood Charities, the philanthropic arm of the TD Garden.

Major Starkey said the back-to-school effort in Concord was led by Carol Jordan, who works for a local mortgage company. She got the Capital Board of Realtors and Staples involved. The backpacks given to Concord students included USB drives and earbuds along with the pencils, pens, and paper. Starkey said he and Jordan have discussed future back-to-school efforts and the possibility of providing tablets.

“It’s interesting that she’s thinking ahead and asking, ‘How do we have to change this program in the future?’ We may have to pivot in the years ahead,” he said.

— Robert Mitchell and divisional writers reported this story