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Families in need get help with back-to-school supplies

For many children, the first day of school is exciting. For others, it's humiliating. Imagine sitting in a desk that first day of school, watching your classmates put away their brand new, colorful school supplies while you just sit there, wonder...

For many children, the first day of school is exciting. For others, it's humiliating.
Imagine sitting in a desk that first day of school, watching your classmates put away their brand new, colorful school supplies while you just sit there, wondering if anyone notices that you don't have a new backpack or box of crayons or anything at all.
"I think that as a child, these memories burn inside you. In your mind you know you're different. You don't know why mom had to buy bread rather than crayons," said Peg Friedman, volunteer coordinator for Churches United in Ministry (CHUM).
It seems every year the school supply list for parents grows longer and more expensive. For families in need, that list can mean making an unbearable choice: let your child go hungry or let them face humiliation.
"That time of year can be hard on families with a limited income. It can add a lot of stress on families," said Kathy Jarve, coordinator of the Housing Stabilization Program for the Salvation Army. "Their priorities are rent, food and clothing."
A number of agencies in Duluth have stepped up to the plate the last couple of years to provide children with school supplies.
CHUM, for example, currently has enough supplies for 50 kids. This is the third year that CHUM has held a back-to-school drive for the families it serves. Friedman expects the drive's outcome will outfit 200 to 250 kids with all the supplies they need.
CHUM depends on its 29-member churches and local businesses for school supply donations, as well as individuals. Friedman said a family of four brought in enough extra supplies for 10 children.
For the past five years, Salvation Army case workers have been helping families in need prepare for the upcoming school year. They also concentrate on families that depend on Salvation Army services.
Each case worker is assigned to 20 or more families. That could mean up to 35 youths within those families need school supplies. Case workers do an intake of each family's needs, fill a backpack with supplies, then deliver it to the home.
"It's pretty exciting for the kids who get them," Jarve said. Oftentimes the kids will take all the supplies out of the backpack and line them up, she added.
The Salvation Army applies for a small grant and receives donations from community businesses and clubs. Then case workers shop for the school supplies, preferably during sales, at local businesses.
Jarve said the average cost of school supplies for elementary school children is between $30 and $40. For older students, the cost is between $40 to $60.
"For a family who has three, five or even six children, that's very difficult," Jarve said.
The Junior League of Duluth has taken a different approach. On Aug. 29, volunteers will assemble backpacks and deliver them the next day to each elementary school. School counselors will then determine which kids need the backpacks.
The League accepts donations from the community but also uses its own funds to buy supplies.
Stacy Oberg, public relations chair, said last year the League distributed 300 backpacks. This year, that number increased to 800.
"We're hoping that by doing this, they (parents) know they have somewhere to go so they don't have to go skipping meals for a week," Oberg said.
Nonprofits aren't the only ones helping kids out this year. Amy Kaiser, a physical education teacher at Lincoln Park School, is making sure each one of her students gets to participate in her class.
"The saddest thing for an elementary age child is when they can't play," Kaiser said.
Many families just can't afford to buy tennis shoes, she said, and kids will come to class with boots, sandals or shoes that are too worn out to be safe.
Kaiser realized something needed to be done when a little girl came to class one day with a new pair of shoes that was four sizes too big.
Kaiser wrote a letter to some organizations asking for donations. She received a total of $750 from the American Legion Post No. 71 and the West VFW No. 137. With that money, Kaiser will buy tennis shoes that kids can leave right at school and use for gym class.
"I was dancing in the hall when I got that first check," Kaiser said. "But I have no idea how quickly $750 will go."
Sandi Dahl is a news reporter for the Budgeteer News. To reach her, call 723-1207 or send e-mail to sandi.dahl@duluth.com .

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