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School-supply drives help students start on an equal footing

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 17, 2008 -  To many elementary school students, the crackle of pushing a shiny fresh pencil on clean paper can blunt the negative back-to-school feelings associated with September.

According to KidSmart St. Louis, a group that runs a free school-supply store, 80,000 children in the region cannot afford school supplies annually. To ensure that September 2008 has enough excitement to temper the anxiety for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, Family Support Network -- a nonprofit group that works to combat child abuse and provides support to at-risk families -- is conducting a supply drive that starts July 21 and ends Aug. 31.

According to Family Support Network, the drive's goal is "to reduce family stress as children return to school but also to increase children's hope and excitement as they return for a new school year." Program supervisor Sue Didier said that low-income families don't have enough money to take care of basic needs. "Therefore, a lot of our families don't have discretionary income to use for school supplies," Didier said.


Students who start the year without new school supplies are instantly seen as different from their peers who can afford more, which often results in hurting the confidence of the former group. Didier stressed that the need for programs that donate free school supplies to low-income students increases as school budgets tighten.

Aside from notebooks, Didier said, "Kids need to bring more costly items. Older kids need scientific calculators. It may be sanitizing gel and Ziploc bags, types of things that are more expensive. It's challenging for families who have more than one child, for single parents with limited incomes to be able to afford the things that they need."

Public schools that require students to wear uniforms may especially strain the wallets of single mothers. Jon Drescher, who worked as a school principal for 25 years, and is now associate director of the Summer Principal Academy of Columbia University's Teachers College said that for financial reasons, he found uniforms unnecessary.

"I think schools always have to be aware of what they're asking parents to provide, especially families where financial resources are limited," Drescher said. "I've never seen the importance of having uniforms in schools. What happens in school is not about what they're wearing, it's about the curriculum."

The other side of that argument is that requiring simple kakhi pants and polo shirts can take the competition out of dressing and hold down costs in the long run.

Mitigating the financial constraints of a city brimming with schools requiring uniforms, St. Louisans have stepped up to answer the call for help, Didier said. "We found the entire St Louis community as very generous in helping supply donations to families," she said. Family Support Network collaborates with the school districts to receive updated supply lists.

The family therapists and counselors who personally deliver supplies to students say that the enjoyment goes both ways. "When we have a school drive, and supplies come in from the community, it's like Christmas in August," said counselor Paula Ellis. "I've seen kids whose eyes light up because they have a new backpack. I feel like Santa Class all year 'round!"

Ellis added that the beauty of the drive lasts beyond the moment of delivery, since having new supplies boost students' confidence, and this confidence translates positively into their schoolwork and behavior. "It gives kids something to look forward to when school starts," Ellis said.

Jaime Rhoades, gifted education coordinator at the Valley Park School District, agreed that the supply drive eases the parents' financial load -- parents who are sometimes forced to decide whether to buy new pens for school or pay their electric bills. "Just to be given the backpack, the pencil, given the basic supply that is now a requirement on the first day of school, it takes that burden off of parents, and helps students to fit in a little more in school," Rhoades said.

For therapist Barbara Burger, "the overwhelming joy, the gratitude, the thank you's, the hugs, the tears" make the supply drive worth the effort. "It's a special moment for them. It feels good to me, too," Burger said.

In a similar effort, KidSmart St. Louis allows teachers to "shop" for new supplies once a month at their warehouse in Bridgeton. Community donors stock the shelves and help stock cubbies during tough economic times.

Family Support Network calls on St. Louis residents for many types of supplies, including pencils, rulers, bags, folders, sanitizing gel, baby wipes, backpacks, crayons, notebooks, paper, markers and more.

You can help

For Family Support Network, call 314-644-5055 ext. 104.

Donations can be dropped off Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Family Support Network's office, 7514 Big Bend Boulevard.  

For KidSmart, visit kidsmartstl.org .

Joy Resmovits, a junior at Barnard College in New York, is an intern at the Beacon. 

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