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Groups help bridge the school-supply gap

It’s a sure sign that summer is beginning to wind down when back-to-school ads begin to outnumber those for sunscreen and beach chairs. Thankfully, dozens of community groups and businesses across North Carolina also have turned their attention to the back-to-school needs of students and teachers with well-organized campaigns to collect school supplies that are a given for many families but unfortunately remain out of reach for too many others.

A donation of paper, crayons, and pencils may be the smallest of gestures, but for a new kindergartner, they can seem like newfound treasure. A brand new backpack often is a cherished badge of school-age stature. But whatever their grade, students are off to a good start when they have the supplies they need to learn.

We should all feel encouraged and heartened by the response from the thousands of people across the state who will donate supplies this year — as is the case each year — to support students whose families can’t afford the expense. From small communities in the mountains to large metropolitan regions in the Piedmont, dozens of organizations are taking the lead to fill the gap.

More than two dozen United Way organizations across the state are either leaders or partners in campaigns. A dozen or more Communities in Schools groups are doing the same. Together, their efforts represent the kind of commitment and care that reminds us what’s best about North Carolina.

Now in its 18th year, McDowell County’s Operation Backpack, provides more than 700 students in grades K-8 with school supplies based on their grade-level span. The numbers of students who benefit from the effort have been increasing every year, says Melanie Dunham, volunteer coordinator for McDowell County schools. “As folks realize the need,” she explains, “they’re happy to help. We get tremendous help from churches and businesses.

In Franklin County, the local United Way organizes an annual “Build-a-Backpack” campaign that gathers school supplies and backpacks across the county to donate to the school system for distribution by the schools. “There’s a great need here,” says Andrea Bell Wright,” director of the local United Way. “We’re just trying to help in any way we can.”

WSOC-TV in Charlotte has led a “School Tools” campaign for the last 20 years in partnership with Communities in Schools, Classroom Central, and other groups to help students — and their teachers — in 18 North Carolina counties in the region and another four in South Carolina.

We have kids who truly show up with nothing, and this helps provide them with everything they would need,” says Gina Salvati, vice president of advancement for Communities in Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. “It’s a fun way to energize the community around something that’s critical for kids.

Since its first drive in 1997, when 2,500 items were donated, support has soared. Last year, the effort collected nearly 350,000 various supplies, from pencils and scissors to filler paper and composition books.

But Gina concedes that even with all the supplies that are donated every year, the need always exceeds what’s been donated.

Let’s all make sure that all students in North Carolina get off to a good start this year. I encourage you to find out how you can help in your community.

Dr. June Atkinson

June Atkinson is the state superintendent of public instruction for North Carolina. Read her full profile here >>