GREENFIELD — When Beau Machaud was an elementary school student more than a decade ago, he came to class each day with a backpack outfitted with pencils, notebooks and erasers — all the essentials for the rigor of each school day. But he remembers classmates who weren’t so lucky, who lagged behind as a result.
Machaud is now addressing those concerns firsthand as an organizer for “Backpack Attack,” an annual fundraising campaign that puts tens of thousands of school supplies in the hands of students in need so they can start the year off on the right foot.
This week, local United Way coordinators solicited donations during their Stuff the Bus event at Walmart, during which volunteers collected school supplies from shoppers and placed them inside a school bus parked in front of the store as a big yellow advertisement for the annual fundraiser.
Thursday, donations were tallied and sorted for school social workers from the county’s 17 public elementary and middle schools. The social workers deliver the items to students in need.
Sarah Pearson, programming intern for the area United Way office, said the event is critical to setting students on a path to success.
“When kids don’t have the necessary items — the pencils, erasers, even glue sticks — they end up behind their peers,” Pearson said. “School is an outlet for them to prepare for the outside world, but if they don’t have those supplies, they don’t feel ready. They get a mentality that they can’t do the same work as the other students because they don’t have supplies, and that mentality changes everything.”
This week marked the 12th year for the local Backpack Attack. Organizer Jeannie Roberts, who has helped since the project’s first summer, said the event has grown tremendously throughout the years and now draws between 30,000 and 40,000 supply donations each year.
“It was a much smaller effort that first time around,” said Roberts, volunteer engagement coordinator for the local United Way office. “We didn’t know how big the impact would be or how great the need was, but we knew that there were a lot of families who struggled to afford school supplies.”
Organizers say one in three Hancock County school children needs some sort of financial assistance. That figure comes from annual reports from the Indiana Department of Education that list the number of families who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
“There’s a hidden need from the community for programs like this,” said Machaud, corporate engagement associate for United Way. “Some don’t realize how high the need is.”
The event has grown from an operation led by a handful of volunteers to a sizable demonstration with more than 60 volunteers from across the county contributing to the cause, Roberts said.
Engaging the community is important, Roberts said, and Stuff the Bus is a visible way to spread the word about children who might go without were it not for the nonprofit’s assistance.
Part of the problem, Roberts said, is that the lists of required school supplies seem to grow longer each year.
“They’re daunting for parents who can fit that into their budgets, but it can be overwhelming and devastating for parents who are already struggling to make ends meet,” she said.
Libby Manship, a Greenfield resident whose sons, Luke and Eli, attend Eastern Hancock Elementary School, donated backpacks, erasers, scissors and crayons at Stuff the Bus on Wednesday.
“I certainly understand that school supplies are a strain on budget, so we’re happy to do anything we can to offset that and help those in need,” Manship said. “It’s essential that our kids have the supplies they need so they have a good foundation for starting school.”
Providing supplies to elementary and middle schools, Michaud said, addresses the need at the earliest age possible.
If children in need aren’t reached when they’re young, it can be harder to build bridges with them as they age, Michaud said. That can lead to a loss of interest in school, which will affect them throughout their education.
When social workers from Hancock County schools receive materials from the effort, they work to identify students who don’t have the needed supplies.
And they go out of their way to make the children feel special, inviting them to choose the supplies they like the best, Roberts said.
“If they really want a red backpack or the Spider-Man backpack, they get to pick it,” she said. It’s different than if they just get handed something, and it gets kids excited about the school year that’s ahead of them.”
Roberts said it’s hard to know if the effort completely fills the need, considering some families might not step forward and ask for supplies.
But she’s confident it’s making an impact.
“The need is so vast, but I feel like every year, we get a little closer and make bigger strides toward filling that gap,” she said.