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Foundation helps disadvantaged students start school on even footing

Roy Jacobson / The Record Volunteer Mary Green of Langley straightens a rack of backpacks Thursday at the Back to School Project “store” in a classroom at the former South Whidbey Primary School.   - Roy Jacobson / The Record
Roy Jacobson / The Record Volunteer Mary Green of Langley straightens a rack of backpacks Thursday at the Back to School Project “store” in a classroom at the former South Whidbey Primary School.
— image credit: Roy Jacobson / The Record

When you struggle with a family illness, or try to figure out how to buy food and pay the mortgage at the same time, new pencils, markers and notebooks for the kids can be a low priority.

“If you’ve got a situation like that at home, it makes it difficult to think of things as small as school supplies,” said Lori Cavender of the nonprofit Readiness To Learn Foundation.

“That’s where we come in,” she said.

As in the past several years, the foundation offers a solution to the return-to-the-classroom dilemma of many families.

Its two-week Back to School Project opened this week, again offering pens, pencils, markers, notebooks, calculators, backpacks — basically everything on a teacher’s list of supplies, Cavender said.

It also provides gift vouchers for clothing, shoes and haircuts, she said.

Everything is new, and has been donated, along with cash, by members of the South Whidbey community and collected by local businesses, churches and service organizations.

“They’re very appreciative,” Cavender said of the families who benefit.

This year, the Back to School Project set up its “store” in the former South Whidbey Primary School along Maxwelton Road in Langley. Pre-qualified families make an appointment to “shop” for the free supplies their children need to start classes.

More than 75 students had visited the store by closing time Thursday, Cavender said. Last year, 185 students took part in the program, which is open to all students in the South Whidbey School District.

A few appointment slots remain open for next week, Monday through Thursday, she said. Classes begin Tuesday, Sept. 7.

“We try to provide a fresh start to the school year by giving them the tools they need to be successful,” Cavender said. “Sometimes something as small as school supplies can seem really big.”

Volunteers are the backbone of the effort, Cavender said. High school students have organized and stocked shelves, but most of the volunteers are adults.

One is Mary Green of Langley, who has helped out the foundation for nearly four years after moving to the South End. She was the organization’s Volunteer of the Month for July.

“I love Whidbey Island, and I want to help where I can,” Green said Thursday as she straightened a rack of backpacks. “This is a wonderful program.”

Several families who participate also volunteer to work at the store; members of one family have helped out since the program began, Cavender said.

Donations this year have been down slightly from the past year, she said, and more contributions would be gratefully accepted. Drop boxes are located at churches and businesses throughout the South End.

Cavender said the number of families who have qualified for the program this year are about the same as last year, and range from one child to six or seven. All the families have been tossed a curveball by illness or the economy or both, she said.

The program is designed to protect the students from any stigma attached to a “handout,” Cavender said.

“We don’t just give them a backpack filled with supplies,” she said. “The kids get to come in and pick out their own. It gives them a sense of ownership, of being a part of it.”

The South Whidbey Back to School Project is in its 12th year, and has assisted thousands of families.

“It’s a great program,” she said. “It shows the generosity of the community we live in, and makes the kids feel like they can start the year fresh.”

The former South Whidbey Primary School

is at 5476 Maxwelton Road in Langley. The Back to School Project is in Room 3C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., although hours may be longer some days.

To determine eligibility and to make an appointment to “shop,” or to donate items or find out the location of the nearest drop box, call 221-6808, ext. 4322.

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