Every year for the past six years or so, I have assisted in a program at our company where we collect school supplies for a local needy elementary school.
I know, I know. The whole school supply thing is a touchy subject for a lot of people. And I don't blame them. It seems ridiculous to me that our school district has a recently approved budget of $598.6 Million which is funded via county and state taxes. In addition to that, an estimated $9.5 Million has been allocated from the "education" lottery. That's a LOT of money, folks.
So where is it going? There are 120 public schools in our county. Many of these schools are in great disrepair and desperately need renovations.
All that aside, there is a need for school supplies that for some reason just isn't being met.
A few years ago, our company partnered with a community program to help provide schools with the materials they need. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts this program was no longer in force this year. As a group, we decided to do it on our own.
We set up donation boxes in our buildings for about a month. Today was the day that we gathered all the items donated and delivered them to the school. We were disappointed with what we had to offer because in past years we had been able to provide so much more. In fact, one woman was so disenchanted with the meager offerings on her floor that she went out and spent $200 of her own money on school supplies to donate.
The teachers and the principals weren't disappointed in the least. The excitement on their faces was told us just how grateful they were. One teacher even made a point to come around and give all of us a hug - the smile on her face was radiant. A recent survey revealed that teachers spend an average of $623 of their own money each year because they don't want to see children go without (and that's a conservative estimate - I've seen some studies that put the amount closer to $1,000). I know I can't afford to spend that much out of my pocket every year on school supplies - and I know that our teachers, who don't make nearly enough, can't really afford that either.
As we were preparing to leave we had a brief conversation with the principal who told us that these supplies would be gone very quickly. She also inadvertently revealed that there are many students at this particular school that are classified as homeless.
We were shocked.
We knew that this school had a large number of families enrolled in the school lunch program for needy children. It never dawned on us that the children were that needy.
Upon returning to the office, I did some quick research. It turns out that our school district currently has over 71,000 students enrolled for the coming year. A little bit more digging revealed that as of January 27, 2010 1,230 students in this district are considered homeless.
I was stunned.
When I think of homeless people, I generally think of that scruffy looking guy who stands on the street corner with a homemade sign. I don't think of children; particularly elementary school children. Kindergarteners.
Now granted, the term "homeless" in this instance is fairly broad. It counts people as homeless if they do not have a permanent address. So they may not necessarily be sleeping under a bridge - but they do not have a permanent and stable home; and now they have to worry about having pencils and paper?
We've all received those lists from our schools and grumbled, "Why do I have to buy all this stuff? My child certainly won't use all this during this school year. What are we paying taxes for any way?" And you are right. We are paying taxes, we approved a lottery that was supposed to fund schools (which in our state has been used, at times, to balance the state budget instead of being allocated to the schools - don't get me started) - and JUST where is all that money going? Well, that is another subject entirely - and definitely needs to be addressed at some point in the near future.
As I said, I have volunteered for this project for many years for three reasons. First, and foremost, was to help out needy children. School is hard enough and to not have the supplies you need makes it harder and causes embarrassment. Two, for the teachers. And three, for the parents; so that maybe we wouldn't have to receive such extensive supply lists every year.
But after discovering just how needy some of these children are; well, now I'll continue to volunteer for one reason and one reason alone. Those children.
And next year? You can bet I'll be pushing every person I see in the hallways at work to give - even if it's just a pack of pencils.