Preparing to learn

United Way and Family Service Association are hosting back-to-school drives, supplies needed

Staying safe: United Way of Bucks County is once again hosting its Stuff the Bus campaign. This year, it will distribute school supplies to families in need across the county, as well as hand sanitizer, face masks and disinfectant wipes. TIMES FILE PHOTO

Preparing for the back-to-school season isn’t a walk in the park for many families. The cost of a backpack, uniform and supplies, especially when purchasing for multiple children, can quickly result in a hefty receipt at Target.

But this year is proving to be even more challenging, both financially and mentally. Parents want to equip their young with hard-to-find items like hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes to protect against COVID-19. At the same time, most are fretting over the same questions – What will school look like in the fall? Will students go back full time, or will a portion of learning be done at home? If the latter is the case, do they need to get as many supplies?

While concrete reopening plans are still being finalized by the school districts, the United Way of Bucks County and Family Service Association of Bucks County are making sure students are prepared to return to the classroom, regardless of the situation.

United Way is once again hosting its Stuff the Bus campaign, which each year distributes supply-filled backpacks to children in need throughout the county. Like everything else, the initiative looks a little different for 2020.

“In the past, it’s always been, every student gets a backpack full of a whole bunch of school items. This year, in addition to that backpack, every student who receives support through United Way is going to get a reusable mask,” said president and CEO Marissa Christie. “And every family that registers online, assuming we can get enough supplies and raise enough funds, we are trying to put together a cleaning box that includes spray cleaner, paper towels, disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer and other essentials like that.”

Christie said monetary donations from the community will allow United Way to purchase items at a discount through wholesalers. The organization is also welcoming donations of sturdy backpacks, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and disinfectant sprays. Those interested in donating are urged to do so by Aug. 11, and a form can be found online. Families who need assistance should sign up online as soon as possible. Several hundred have already made requests.

“I heard from a mom two days ago. She has a medically vulnerable child at home, and she’s got other kids who are not at home all the time. She’s particularly concerned about what it would look like if one of her older kids is back in school, even part time, because she doesn’t feel like we know enough about how COVID behaves in children yet,” said Christie. “A lot of kids and parents remain anxious about what is coming in the fall. If we can give that mom and her family peace of mind, well then, we need to do that.”

Once all items are obtained, a few volunteers at a time will fill the backpacks and boxes at United Way’s new HELP Center in Bristol. There will then be designated, contact-free pick-up times.

For Christie, her biggest fear is that locals are “tapped out” on giving.

“A lot of folks have made donations to COVID-related causes. They’ve made donations to help with food supply. We never know if donor fatigue is going to set in for folks, or whether they still have a place in their heart and the ability to help with back-to-school supplies, especially those critical family boxes with disinfectant,” she said. “I’m hoping that they do. I hope that people see this as important.”

As for Family Service, the organization is inviting community members to sponsor a child by donating new clothes, backpacks and other supplies, including hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.

“The drive is for children who are clients of ours or children of clients of ours. It’s a high-need population in Bucks County. The clinician or case manager identifies the children who need our help, and they submit an application with their clothing size, shoe size, what grade they’re in and any specific items they need, and then we match them with donors,” said CEO Dina Della Ducata. “For confidentiality, the donors only receive the initials, grade level and size information of the children. We don’t provide names for HIPAA reasons, and there’s no contact between donor and child.”

Interested donors can choose to be randomly matched with a child, or they can select a specific age and gender if they have a preference. Family Service provides a list of needed items, which the donor then shops for. Once purchased, the items should be dropped off to Family Service’s headquarters at 4 Cornerstone Drive, Langhorne. Additionally, businesses can host in-house donation drives. Items collected during these events will help fill backpacks for children who aren’t sponsored one-to-one.

“While everyone is home, we understand that it’s going to be a little more difficult for families to sponsor children. If they can’t sponsor this year, we welcome in-kind donations. They can purchase things online and have them shipped to our Langhorne office, or we’re also accepting monetary donations. Our staff will go out and shop or order online,” said Della Ducata. “All of these children who filled out an application will get a backpack, whether it’s from a donor or we do it ourselves. But the more support we get from the community, the easier it is to run the program and get these kids everything they need for back to school, whatever that’s going to look like this year.”

Visit uwbucks.org/stuffthebus and fsabc.org for more information.

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com