We’ve officially hit that point in the summer when massive, colorful back-to-school displays are erected in stores like Target and Walmart. For most kids, this sight of pens and notebooks galore is met with a sense of dread because their coveted vacation is quickly nearing its end.
But for others, that dread is felt for a different reason — their parents can’t afford those needed supplies.
According to United Way of Bucks County, four out of 25 local kids struggle to have their basic needs met. This means that four children in every classroom don’t have the proper tools required to begin the academic year on a good note, which results in embarrassment and a constant struggle to catch up.
In order to ensure as many students as possible are fully-prepared on the first day of school, United Way is hosting its annual Stuff the Bus campaign. Now in its seventh year, the initiative collects and donates supply-filled backpacks to children and teens in every school district throughout Bucks County.
Last year, Stuff the Bus achieved a huge milestone by providing 3,378 kids in need with backpacks. With the number of requests for backpacks from nonprofits, school districts and families expected to increase, United Way is aiming to fill 3,500 backpacks for 2019 – its most ambitious goal to date.
“The demand is still growing. Even at 3,500 bags, we’re probably only reaching about 10 percent of the students that would be eligible across the county. So we still have a lot of room to grow if we wanted to,” said Tim Philpot, co-chair of the campaign.
According to Philpot, the mission of Stuff the Bus – to give all students a fair shot at academic success – has remained the same since its inception seven years ago.
“The idea behind it is that we want to allow all students from Bucks County to get off to a good start to the school year. We know that children who come from low-income families often don’t have access to the school supplies that their peers from families that are better off economically do,” he said. “We want to make sure these students are able to start school on par with their peers, having the tools that they need.”
Philpot stressed the instrumental role the community plays in helping United Way reach its annual goal, and he listed a variety of ways residents can get involved. Local businesses and places of worship are invited to host mini-drives, with customizable posters, instructions and a list of needed items available online. Supply donations can be dropped off by individuals at United Way’s office in Fairless Hills as well.
Cash donations are also accepted. Once Philpot and Stuff the Bus volunteers take inventory of the donated supplies, this money allows them to purchase any items that are lacking to ensure each backpack is full.
On Thursday, Aug. 22 at Westaby Hall, the social hall of the Fairless Hills Fire Department, located at 425 Hood Blvd., United Way is hosting its large-scale Backpack-A-Thon – the high-energy culmination of Stuff the Bus.
“We’re incredibly grateful to the fire company for extending their space to us because it is large and convenient and there’s great parking,” Philpot said. “It’s really easy for people to get to. It has made the Backpack-A-Thon even smoother.”
Over the span of several hours, dozens of volunteers fill the backpacks in an assembly line fashion. Each bag contains approximately 18 items and is customized for an elementary school boy or girl, or a middle/high school boy or girl.
“We go off of the lists that the school districts provide to parents about the recommended types of items,” Philpot said. “That includes everything from composition books to pens and pencils to erasers, pencil sharpeners, just about everything you could think of.”
Once the thousands of backpacks are assembled, they are distributed to clients of United Way’s member agencies and students exhibiting need in all Bucks County school districts.
“It’s a really wonderful experience to see a child come to pick up a bag, knowing they don’t have one,” Philpot said. “Just watching their eyes light up when they see the perfect one that they really like.”
The deadline to donate to Stuff the Bus is Thursday, Aug. 22. This can be done at uwbucks.org/stuffthebus (a backpack filled with required school supplies costs about $35 per child, but all donations are welcome), by mailing a check to United Way at 413 Hood Blvd., Fairless Hills, PA 19030 with “Stuff the Bus” in the memo line, or by bringing a donation of new school supplies to any Stuff the Bus collection site on Monday, Aug. 12, or Tuesday, Aug. 13. A full list of locations and supplies can be found online. ••
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com