story and photos by Brittany Ransom
The first day of school may be a few weeks away but United Way of Fort Smith Area got a jumpstart on helping families get ready for it this weekend (July 18-19), by holding its annual Stuff the Bus school supply drive.
Buses were parked at Walmart locations throughout the region, with more than 650 volunteers on-hand collecting and sorting everything from pencils and paper to backpacks and hand sanitizer. Participating stores included the three Fort Smith supercenters, as well as locations in Alma, Bonneville, Greenwood, Ozark, Paris, Poteau, Sallisaw and Van Buren.
Marking its 10th year, the event has put hundreds of thousands of supplies into the hands of area children. In 2013 alone, United Way collected more than 40,000 packages of supplies through Stuff the Bus. The drive is designed to help make going back to school a little easier both for the students and for parents who may struggle to purchase all of the items on lengthy supply lists.
"Last year, I had a gentleman come up to me with his daughter who handed me a bag of supplies. He said, 'Last year we needed supplies, this year we want to give back,’” said Mitzy Little, United Way resource development/marketing director. "When you donate that package of pencils or notebook, you never know the person it might touch. It does make a difference in a child’s life."
Buses were also parked at locations throughout Northwest Arkansas, including stores in Bentonville, Fayetteville, Huntsville, Rogers, Siloam Springs, Springdale, and Jane, Missouri. Coordinated by the United Way of Northwest Arkansas, the supplies from NWA's Stuff the Bus benefit schools and families in the counties it serves.
Several area businesses also held pre-Stuff the Bus drives, collecting supplies from their employees and customers. In Fort Smith, Golden Living employees donated more than 2,000 packages and raised $2,900 to benefit Stuff the Bus. The supplies were donated to United Way to be distributed among the participating Districts and agencies.
Both United Way organizations plan to continue the annual school supply drive in coming years, although the event will operate under a new name. Through a formal partnership with Walmart, United Ways across the country will transition to sponsoring "Fill the Bus." The premise will remain the same, with area schools benefitting from each organization's drive and local volunteers manning the buses at Walmart locations.
Families in need of supplies are encouraged to contact their school district for details about its distribution policy. To donate or for more information about how to support United Way's efforts, contact UWFSA at 479-782-1311 or UWNWA at 479-750-1221.