Rotary Club keeps local students supplied

The Greenwich Rotary Club and the Department of Social Services teamed up to help take a load off of local families last week by providing 258 students with backpacks chock full of required school supplies.

It was the Rotary Club’s fourth year supplying kindergarten through eighth grade students in need with the grade-specific school materials required by the town’s public schools, according to John Lee, chairman of the club’s Community Projects Committee.

The organization initiated the backpack program just around the time the recession hit in 2008, Mr. Lee explained. At the time, social services personnel were working to provide Boy Scouts with markers and crayons for the upcoming school year. There was so much demand for supplies for families who couldn’t afford them that the concept of providing needy students with school materials was born, he said.

Mr. Lee added that the program has since shown that a surprising portion of the town’s population falls under Title I, which helps disadvantaged children obtain resources and reach state academic standards through federal funding. While Greenwich has the reputation of being a haven of the wealthy and the elite, the truth is there are families struggling and the program was designed to help them.

While the first year of the backpack operation was somewhat chaotic, Mr. Lee recalled in an interview with the Post last week, the process has since been smoothed out with the addition of Greenwich Department of Social Services personnel who help collate supplies and distribute the bags. This year, as in recent years, on Thursday volunteers from the department and the Rotary Club put the bags together and then on Friday they were handed out to the families. Mr. Lee’s kids, Sydney and Ryan, even lent a hand. Each grade level had a specific list of supplies for the school year and the volunteers loaded the backpacks with those supplies so they would be ready to go for the students.

Additionally, the generosity of retailers like Staples and Target has been critical to the endurance of the program, Mr. Lee said, because they allow the Rotary Club to purchase supplies in bulk at their promotional prices. Ordering the same materials online would nearly quadruple the cost, he said.

The Rotary Club volunteers are another “secret” to the operation’s success, Mr. Lee revealed. Nearly half of the club’s 70 members assisted with the program this year, spending three days shopping and collecting a total of 3,700 packages of supplies.

Even the need for the most expensive materials is met through the club’s efforts, including the purchase of a scientific calculator for each student who will take algebra over the course of the school year, Mr. Lee said.

Each year the Greenwich Department of Social Services ensures that the children who are in greatest need of supplies are the ones who benefit from the program. For the first three years of operation, caseworkers from the department referred some of their clients to the Rotary Club, providing students’ grade levels, but keeping their identities confidential, Mr. Lee said.

This year, according to Greenwich social worker Alison Brush, caseworkers sent letters to all current clients asking if they needed assistance with their children’s school supplies. In less than one week, social services had a list of 258 students in need of the program, an overwhelming increase in comparison to last year’s 195 students.

“You wouldn’t believe how quick the response was, which really just shows that people need it,” Ms. Brush said. It seems that reaching out to all clients may be the best method of capturing all of the students who need assistance, she added.

In fact, the number of students increased so considerably this year that the Rotary Club and social services fell shy of some funding, which the Junior League of Greenwich later supplied.

This year’s collection of backpacks was distributed in two sessions on Friday, just before the start of the school year.

The operation is conducted entirely at Town Hall, where students in need and their families are able to participate in the program discreetly, according to Mr. Lee.

“It’s really heartwarming” to see the families come in, he said. There are many mothers who don’t have the time, let alone the money, to obtain these supplies and they are very appreciative, he added.

Ms. Brush agreed, describing a kind note of appreciation received each year from a man who has guardianship of his granddaughter and cannot afford the extensive list of required school supplies.

As far as the future of the backpack program goes, Mr. Lee said that, provided there is funding, the Rotary Club plans to continue its operation for many years to come.

“We’re a service organization,” he said. “This is what’s needed and it’s something we can do.”


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