GREENFIELD — It had been a long day at the Stuff the Bus donation drive when a woman approached workers with a sack of school supplies and a story.
Two years ago, her family had benefited from the United Way of Central Indiana’s effort to equip needy children with all the back-to-school essentials. She and her husband had both lost their jobs and were down on their luck, and they had worried about preparing their kids. But United Way, with its annual “Backpack Attack,” was there with everything they needed.
This year, now gainfully employed, the woman wanted to give back to the program that had made such a difference to her family.
Jeannie Roberts, volunteer engagement coordinator for United Way, was touched by the woman’s story. As volunteers came together Thursday morning to organize the Backpack Attack donations, she thought back to what the woman had experienced.
“Made me want to cry because she was so grateful for the help,” Roberts said. “She just really felt like she wanted to pay back the favor. It just meant the world to me.”
Since 1999, United Way has been organizing the collection of school supplies for children who might otherwise go without. Paula Jarrett, Hancock County’s area director for United Way, brought Backpack Attack to Greenfield in 2003. It now serves all four county school corporations.
“It removes an unnecessary barrier, and it helps the kids start off the school year right,” Jarrett said.
From crayons to calculators, supplies go to 17 schools across the county and then are distributed to children in need.
Schools often set up little stores and invite children and their families to go “shopping.” No money changes hands, but children walk away feeling ready for the start of the year.
Thirty percent of Hancock County children in kindergarten through eighth grade receive free or reduced-price lunches. That number is a solid indicator of the need for assistance, Jarrett said.
“I know that’s shocking to people, but you have to be living in some serious poverty,” she said.
Each year, United Way networks with school social workers and staff to identify how many school supplies should be delivered to each school, based on the anticipated need.
The operation depends on donations from the community. Area businesses, churches and civic groups step up every year to contribute.
This year, local organizers estimated they had received upwards of 50,000 supplies – a record number of donations.
Many participants enjoy doing the shopping for school supplies, while others prefer to contribute cash.
Cash donations give United Way volunteers the flexibility to fill in the gaps if they come up short in one category of school supplies.
“Sometimes, we are just drowning in crayons; last year, we didn’t get enough crayons,” Jarrett said. “That’s why these cash donations are so valuable, so we can really target what these schools need.”
Teachers often feel compelled to buy things for students in their classroom who don’t have what they need, and Backpack Attack seeks to ease that burden.
“It’s just another way for us to try to help,” said Greg Mankey, a member of the United Way advisory board.
Mankey used his computer skills to make the organization process easier for the volunteers. He created a spreadsheet that categorizes each school’s needs, so volunteers have exact numbers to reference when counting out supplies.
Sorting and counting supplies is a day-long endeavor every year for the volunteers, who gathered Thursday at J.B. Stephens Elementary to unpack bags and boxes, stack and sort supplies.
Emma Somers, 16, began volunteering for the event five years ago with her father, Jeff Somers, a member of the United Way advisory board. Thursday, she was among those helping organize the colorful chaos.
Emma and her father have made a summer tradition of working at Backpack Attack. In the beginning, Emma was a Junior National Honor Society student just looking for a way to log volunteer hours.
“And then, I’ve just stuck with it every year,” she said. “It’s pretty cool.”