Rotary Club helps get students ready for school

With her mother Maria at her side, seven-year-old Mariela Merida picks out a backpack for the new school year. — Ken Borsuk photo

With her mother Maria at her side, seven-year-old Mariela Merida picks out a backpack for the new school year.
— Ken Borsuk photo

Greenwich students might not exactly have been looking forward to the end of summer vacation and the start of school with smiles and sunshine, but at least they went back to the daily academic grind with new school supplies to make a fresh start.

And for some residents in town, those new supplies came courtesy of the town’s Department of Social Services through its ongoing partnership with the Greenwich Rotary Club. Every year Greenwich Rotarians raise money to fund the purchase of new backpacks and school supplies and then clients of the Social Services Department are able to go and pick the backpacks for their kids. John Lee, chairman of the club’s community projects committee, told the Post that there were 258 backpacks purchased this year and when they were distributed last Friday at Town Hall there was a line waiting for the doors to open.

Mr. Lee said that the 258 backpacks distributed this year is in line with last year’s amount, which, at the time, showed a marked increase from years past. This has been a Rotary Club project for more than five years.

“When we first started doing this we didn’t give out nearly as many backpacks,” Mr. Lee said. “We went from 95 bags to more than 100 and it just shot up last year. I think there is a growing need for this and not just the word getting out. We don’t really advertise this program that much. We just know through social services which caseworkers have clients that need this.”

Alison Brush, the Department of Social Services’ program coordinator for community gifts, agreed that there has been a growing need for this program. She said this year the program is helping close to 160 families in town.

“People started asking for backpacks at the beginning of the summer so there’s definitely a need,” Ms. Brush told the Post.

It wasn’t just backpacks that were given out last Friday. All those bags came filled with the supplies they needed to start school on Tuesday ranging from crayons for kindergartners to notebooks and folders for eighth graders. Each school in town was checked with to make sure the list of needed supplies for each grade was included. Kids who needed them were also given calculators and all of this was covered by the Rotary Club.

Mr. Lee said the Rotary Club got involved after he came to them with the idea. One of his kids’ friend’s mother works in the Department of Social Services and they struck up a conversation one day at a birthday party about the need to get magic markers for kids served by the department. Mr. Lee said the club would be happy to help and the involvement in getting school supplies grew from there.

“I have kids so I know the demands of what’s needed for school supplies,” Mr. Lee said. “When I was a kid it wasn’t like it was now. But each year the families have to get a really extensive list and I thought that since we know from the department’s case files which kids need the help and I can get the lists from the schools of what they need, we can bring that together and make sure these kids have what they need to start the year.”

This is an extension of traditional Rotary Club efforts to help improve literacy in children. Additionally third graders get dictionaries and thesauruses from the club each year and Rotarians also provide funding for the Reading is Fundamental program in town along with federal funds and help from Diane’s Books in Greenwich. The club is also a big funder along with the United Way for the Reading Champions program in town.

“We are a community organization and literacy is a very significant area to concentrate on,” Mr. Lee said.

Rotarians volunteered not just with monetary donations to this project but also in putting the backpacks together with the needed supplies. There also has to be a lot of shopping done. Mr. Lee said that buying supplies in bulk from a place like Staples or Costco ends up being more expensive than going out to individual stores and taking advantage of back to school sales at stores like Target and CVS. That means, though, that the volunteers also need to be able to strike quickly and get the good backpacks and supplies before they’re sold out and the sales are over.

“It would be a lot simpler if we could just order from Staples, but doing it this way lets us keep to our budget of about $8,000,” Mr. Lee said. “When you hit the local stores you get in on the promotions. You get crayons for 25 cents and markers for $1.99. You don’t get that when you order at Costco. It’s a lot of grunt work and you have to catch it right at back to school time. We’re not an extremely well endowed organization. We’re just volunteers and literacy has been our hallmark. We want to be able to meet the need for the Department of Social Services.”

Like with recent food drives, an issue that has to be overcome is that people don’t know that help getting basic school supplies is needed by Greenwich families.

“People think that this is something people need in Stamford and Norwalk, not this town,” Mr. Lee said. “You tell people you’re doing this project here and you get a chuckle out of it and they’re like ‘Really? In Greenwich?’ People don’t realize how diverse a community Greenwich is.”

Ms. Brush said that people take for granted something like school supplies can be easily purchased. This can be a burden on families, especially when they have multiple kids that need backpacks and supplies.

“A lot of families can’t afford to have their kids get a new backpack,” Ms. Brush said.

Because of this, Ms. Brush said that partnerships like this are vital for the department.

“We wouldn’t be able to serve the community without groups that come forward and want to help our clients,” Ms. Brush said. “That comes from community groups like the Rotary Club that see a need and make sure to collaborate with us to make sure that need is addressed.”


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