Local nonprofit Crayons to Computers provides school supplies to cash-strapped parents, teachers

CINCINNATI -- A shiny, new box of brightly-colored crayons, a fresh pack of No. 2 pencils, hundreds of crisp sheets of notebook paper -- and don’t forget the cool, new backpack.

These are the items at the top of nearly every parent’s back-to-school supply list this month as kids head back to the classroom. For many local families, a quick trip to the store -- preferably before all the good colors of spiral notebooks are gone -- will do the trick.

For others, it’s a struggle to mark items off the long list.

A growing number of children living in poverty in Greater Cincinnati will show up to school this year without the supplies they need because their parents simply can’t afford to buy them.

That’s where Crayons to Computers steps in. The Cincinnati-based nonprofit will support nearly 150,000 disadvantaged students, 12,000 teachers and 600 schools this school year with much-needed school supplies, incentive items and educational tools for the classroom, according to president and CEO Susan Frankel.

“For families struggling to put food on the table, there is no money left over for things like school supplies,” she said. “Without proper supplies, children don’t have the tools they need to learn -- and that’s a big barrier to success.”

Local teachers like Katie Jerdon see that struggle each school year.

“More than 90 percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced lunch,” said Jerdon, a second-grade teacher at Fairwood Elementary School in Hamilton. “Many of our kids start school each year with just the smile on their face. We have to make sure they get what they need so they can start the school year ready to learn.”

Jerdon has been a volunteer for Crayons to Computers for the past 10 years. She also receives school supplies through the organization for her students.

Prior to that, most of the school supplies she distributed were purchased with money out of her own pocket. For classroom teachers, that’s often the norm, Frankel said.

Crayons to Computers estimates that about 77 percent of the school supplies needed in classrooms are paid for by teachers who use their own money. Close to 92 percent of teachers spend up to $1,000 every year on items for their students.

The organization aims to help teachers bridge that gap through its Teacher Free Store in Bond Hill, where teachers from qualifying schools can shop for their students for free. Its mobile outreach program takes supplies directly to educators.

“It’s phenomenal,” Jerdon said of the resource. “It saves me every year.”

Crayons to Computers has distributed more than $144 million worth of free educational materials since it began in 1997. The organization has a handful of assistance programs and serves a 16-county area here in Greater Cincinnati. Schools where at least 60 percent of its students qualify for the USDA’s National School Lunch Program qualify for its services.

With the rise in poverty here in Greater Cincinnati, their job has been getting harder and harder, according to Frankel. In just the last few years, the local need has dramatically increased, she said.

For the 2013-14 school year, there were 298 schools in the nonprofit’s coverage area that met the requirement. This year, 415 schools have met the 60 percent threshold.

What’s more, the schools that already qualified for assistance now have an even higher percentage of disadvantaged students.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” she said of the growing poverty rate. “We didn’t grow at that same pace.”

Donations keep Crayons to Computers afloat. The organization relies on the generosity of the community and local businesses for cash and school supply donations. Partnerships also allow every dollar spent to result in $10 worth of products, Frankel said.

“We stretch every dollar pretty far,” she said. “We have to in order to keep our shelves stocked all year.”

Crayons to Computers' Teacher Free Store in Bond Hill gives teachers from eligible schools the chance to get free school supplies for their students. Photo provided by Crayons to Computers

The Teacher Free Store has a variety of key items for kids from crayons, markers and colored pencils to notebooks, rulers and folders. Crafts with Conviction, a partnership with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and the Ohio Department of Youth Services, provides further materials.

Through the program, volunteer inmates at 16 Ohio prisons and juvenile correctional facilities use donated materials to create educational tools and incentive items, including flashcards, journals, maps and handmade book bags.

“It’s a unique partnership,” said Frankel. “It allows teachers to receive items beyond the core essentials that really help to enhance the classroom experience.”

This month is Crayons to Computers' busiest month. The Teacher Free Store opened Aug. 1 for the school year. Another surge will occur in January as kids return to class after winter break, Frankel said.

“The kids we serve are just like every other kid,” she said. “Their crayons get used, their pencils get lost … Their supplies need to be replenished throughout the school year.”

For the kids in Jerdon’s class this year, school supplies are already in hand. The veteran teacher got her shopping done at the Teacher Free Store so she could hand out supplies to her students at Fairwood’s open house on Monday.

“They come in a little nervous, and they leave excited for the new school year,” she said. “When they get all their supplies, their little faces light up. They’re more confident, and they know they’ll have everything they need on the first day of school.”

Learn more or get involved

For more information about Crayons to Computers, including a list of schools that qualify for help, visit the nonprofit’s website. The organization also needs donations and volunteers to help throughout the year with its various programs. Click here for details or call 513-482-3290.

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