story by Sarah E. White, special to The City Wire
photo courtesy of Brian Spessard
A new school year is a time of excitement, but for low-income families it can also be a source of stress. School supplies, backpacks and new clothes can strain already tight finances, which is why several groups in Northwest Arkansas and the Fort Smith metro area are working to ensure children have everything they need even if their families can’t afford it.
The biggest of these efforts is Stuff the Bus, begun eight years ago by the United Way of Northwest Arkansas (and also utilized by United Way of Fort Smith Area). The United Way will park buses at area Walmart stores on Friday and Saturday (Aug. 3 and 4), allowing patrons to buy something extra to donate to kids in need. (Details on all school supply-related drives can be found at the end of this story.)
Last year, more than 100,000 items were collected and distributed to students, said Bendi Toland, manager of volunteers for the United Way of Northwest Arkansas.
“We’re hoping to hopefully exceed that number this year,” she said, noting that local businesses also set up collection stations, and 4,000 backpacks have been donated by Walmart to hold some of those supplies.
“This is just part of what we found helps children when they start school,” Toland said, and it eliminates a basic barrier to education when students have all the supplies they need.
Studies have shown as many as 40,000 families in Northwest Arkansas struggle financially, and buying school supplies can cause extra strain on stretched budgets.
“Sometimes school supplies are last on the list when you have to pay the electric bill” and other necessities, Toland said, so providing supplies “helps to give kids a good start” for the year.
All items collected at each store will stay within that district in Northwest Arkansas, Toland said.
In the Fort Smith area, items collected will remain within their districts, with the exception of items collected on Friday (Aug. 3) in Fort Smith, United Way marketing director Mitzy Little said. Those items will be distributed to students in the six-county area served by the United Way of Fort Smith Area who do not live in towns with Walmart stores.
In addition to Stuff the Bus, students in and around Fort Smith will have a chance to get a backpack full of supplies by visiting the Zero Street Walmart in Fort Smith on Saturday (Aug. 4). Members of Harvest Time Church will give away 1,000 backpacks full of supplies for kindergarten through sixth-grade students from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The child must be present to receive a backpack.
April Phipps, community impact director at the church, said about 500 members of the congregation took part in the backpack project, whether by donating items or helping to stuff the packs.
“As a church, we are always looking for practical ways to be a help to our community,” she said. “We looked at a backpack outreach as a way to help people meet a very real and practical need this time of year.” She noted the costs of going back to school can be “overwhelming,” particularly for families with more than one child.
The Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter also seeks donations to help children start the year off right. Project Apple Tree is taking place through Aug. 12 at the Northwest Arkansas Mall n Fayetteville. A tree decorated with apples is at center court, and each apple lists the supply needs of a child at the shelter.
Greg Russell, director of marketing for the shelter, said the on-site school helps eliminate logistical problems and distractions associated with attending school off campus. Attending school can help them make up ground they’ve lost academically in the past.
“We essentially have combined the best of the school environment and the best of the home environment,” at the shelter, he said. “We believe this helps the kids emotionally and educationally, allowing them to focus on their healing and their studies. Our students are able to avoid the additional stress they might experience in ‘outside’ schools.”
But no matter where they go, students still have needs at the beginning of the year. That’s especially true with children at the shelter, who may have come with very little.
“The children in our care most often come to us literally with only the clothes on their backs, so we must supply them with everything they will need during the roughly six weeks they might be with us – and that certainly includes school clothes and supplies,” Russell said. “And virtually everything we provide them is theirs to take with them, so we are continually seeking the help of the community to be able to meet every child’s needs throughout the entire year.”
People who want to help can choose an apple off the tree or donate general supplies (the needs list is available here). Items need to be taken to the mall’s guest services center by Aug. 12, or they can be taken to the shelter in Bentonville.
School supply collection/distribution events:
- Stuff the Bus/Northwest — 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday (Aug. 3), 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday (Aug. 4) at Walmart stores in Bentonville; Fayetteville (Martin Luther King and Mall Avenue); Gravette; Huntsville; Pineville, Mo.; Prairie Grove; Rogers (Pleasant Grove and Walnut locations); Siloam Springs; and Springdale
- Stuff the Bus/Fort Smith area — 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at Wal-Mart stores in Alma; Booneville; Fort Smith (all three Supercenter stores); Greenwood, Ozark, Paris (Friday only); Poteau, Okla.; Sallisaw, Okla.; and Van Buren
To volunteer in Northwest Arkansas, go here and click on the bus. In Fort Smith, contact Mitzy Little at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you need a backpack and live in Northwest Arkansas, call the United Way’s hotline at 2-1-1.
- Harvest Time Backpack Giveaway — 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday (Aug. 4) at the Zero Street Walmart in Fort Smith
- Bella Vista Back to School Bash — Carnival games, food and school supply prizes for Gravette and Bentonville students from 10 a.m. to noon and noon to 2 p.m Saturday at Riordan Hall, Bella Vista
Tickets are free but must be obtained in advance from Bank of the Ozarks in Bella Vista, (479) 876-2521
- Project Apple Tree — Now through Aug. 12 at center court, Northwest Arkansas Mall, Fayetteville
Pick up an apple listing the needs of a specific child at the Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter or donate general supplies
Items must be returned to guest services at the mall or the shelter by Aug. 12