Covid-19Magazine Exclusive

Stuffing the Bus

COVID-19 has made the start of the 2020-21 school year a strange one. Some kids are returning to their familiar classrooms in person. Others will begin the year virtually.

Either way, supplies are important.

“I think students who are going to learn from home also need to start the year with new pencils and that new crayon smell,” says Marian Calvin, director of development for the Akron, Ohio, Citadel Corps. “They may be on their Chromebooks now, but they’re still in school.”


Rolling with Walmart

In early August, Salvationists around the country teamed up with Walmart for the annual “Stuff the Bus” school supply drive. More than 4,500 stores paticipated against the backdrop of COVID-19.

Many parents who lost their jobs during the pandemic needed the extra help. However, even as they stuffed pencils, pens, rulers, glues, notebooks, and other supplies into the boxes, many school districts still grappled with whether to hold school virtually or in person.

“Before the pandemic, one in five American children were already living in poverty,” said Commissioner Kenneth Hodder, national commander of The Salvation Army. “Feeling unprepared for class puts underserved students at a disadvantage and creates lasting social and emotional challenges. Whether they return to learning online or in the classroom, school supplies remain critical to their success.”

The Salvation Army partnered with actress Candace Cameron Bure on the “Stuff the Bus” effort, which provided more than 2 million school supply items to children across the country in 2019.

“As a mother, I feel that every child deserves the tools they need to thrive and the opportunity to look past their circumstances and achieve their dreams,” said Bure. “The Salvation Army sets children up for success in a variety of ways, including giving them much-needed supplies to help start the year off right.”

Walmart shoppers could purchase and drop off items at collection bins inside the front doors. There was also the option of donating online.


Rolling over COVID

Due to COVID–19, Army volunteers in Akron were absent from the donation bins. In the past, they were creative and decorated the donation boxes to look like school buses. Sometimes volunteers would stand nearby and hand out information sheets. This year, Akron Corps workers improvised by creating full-size photos showing students with a smiling Major Steven Stoops, the corps officer, and attached them to barrels that were used instead of boxes.

Walmart employees made frequent public announcements to shoppers and the four stores in the area came through with 600 individual school supply items, Calvin said.

“The supplies will go to students in the Learning Zone, a distance learning program, and also to the community,” she said.

“If our students need anything, we will have the supplies,” she said. “School startup is very different this year, but it’s still starting up. They deserve good, fresh supplies.”

In Scranton, Pa., the corps officers secured a donation box in a Walmart in nearby Dixon City despite some initial fears about COVID. Major Karen Schmig said volunteers collected about 900 items.

Last year, corps workers gave out about 25 backpacks filled with school supplies.

“Right now, we already have 30 or 40 families on our waiting list,” Schmig said. “We anticipate there will be a greater need. Even parents who have not asked for those kinds of things before are going to need them, especially those who lost their jobs because of COVID or were out of work for a couple of months and are still trying to catch up.”

In Lexington, Ky., four area Walmarts took part in “Stuff the Bus” and collected 400 items, said Krista Whitaker, community relations and development coordinator for The Salvation Army.

“We have gathered more this year than we did last year,” Whitaker said. “Everybody was willing to help and urge people to give.

“It’s hard to tell what the need is right now. I think it’s going to look different this year. I don’t think it’s going to be one gigantic push; I think folks are going to need things as we go along.”


Rolling into the future

Whitaker said local districts are struggling with whether to return in person or go virtual. She said the first priority will be to provide supplies for the children in the shelter connected to the corps, as well as to the Boys & Girls Club. The “marginalized” are also on the list.

“If anybody reaches out, we will find a way to help them,” she said. “We are seeing people who have never asked for assistance before.

“The Salvation Army is here to reach people in the community who need the extra help. We want to make certain we’re doing everything we can for those kids.”

Lieutenant Tylar Melfi of the North Boroughs, Pa., Worship and Service Center near Pittsburgh, said the “Stuff the Bus” campaign went well, and the corps recently held a drive–thru, back-to-school event to give out backpacks.

Melfi said the uncertainty is affecting adults and children.

“It’s really hard for the kids to feel excited about the school year,” he said. “A lot of them aren’t going to be with their peers. These events we’re doing and the giveaways, are just reminders that there is some normalcy left and it’s still a time to be excited. It’s all a reminder that their education is important and adults care about learning as well as having those rulers, backpacks, nice-looking lunch boxes, and cool pens.”

by Robert Mitchell