Churches take sting out of back-to-school expenses with major donations of supplies

For families in need, costs can be too much

CINCINNATI — It’s almost back-to-school time. For parents, that can mean spending between $50 and $100 per child on school supplies like folders, pencils, calculators and backpacks.

That’s not a hardship for people of means. But for those on a tight budget, it can be a problem. And there are more of those than you might think.

For instance, in Cincinnati Public Schools, about four out of five students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, which indicates that their families’ resources are tight, said Public Affairs Director Janet Walsh.

In Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties in Kentucky, almost 43 percent of the 40,000 public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

At Collins Elementary in Boone County, 100 percent of the students qualify, said Family Resource Center coordinator Kathy Oehler.

“We have families living with other families, families that stay in hotels … it’s a very transient population here,” she said. For some of those families, which have up to 10 children, buying school supplies is a real hardship, she said.

Fortunately, some local churches have stepped up to purchase school supplies for children in the Tri-State. For Collins Elementary, those churches are Richwood Presbyterian, 7 Hills Church in Florence and Florence Christian Church.

The latter purchases and distributes school supplies to 16 of Boone County’s 23 public schools, said Maleah Rhodes, who coordinates the program for the church.

For many years, the church simply set out a box for members to fill with supplies. In 2008, Rhodes was asked to drop the box off at Florence Elementary; there, she was shown the school resource center, where goods for needy students are kept.

“I was stunned,” Rhodes said. “I had no idea this level of poverty existed that near to where we all live and work ... I said, ‘We’ll do better next year.’”

The next year, the church raised $300 to buy supplies. Each year, the program grew and more schools were added. Last year, the church raised more than $3,200.

Every summer about this time, Rhodes and her team of volunteers commandeer the church’s activity center and transform it into an assembly line for filling backpacks with protractors, erasers and notebooks.

“The response of the congregation has been phenomenal,” she said. “It’s nothing I could have imagined back in 2009.”

It’s incredibly rewarding for her, she said, because she grew up in poverty. Her grandmother made sure she had all her school supplies, she said, but “not every kid has a family member who can make this happen.”

At Forest Chapel United Methodist Church in Forest Park, buying school supplies is part of a partnership the church has with nearby Winton Woods Primary North Elementary School.

That partnership includes having some members of the church spend class time reading to the students, said Evelyn Jones, co-chairman of the church’s school supplies committee.

Every year, the principal gives the church a list of items the students need. The committee typically raises about $1,200 to buy them, chiefly through donations from local businesses.

The church delivers the items to the school for distribution to the students, Jones said.

“We have a wonderful pastor who’s big on … taking our ministry from the building out to the community,” she said.

In eastern Hamilton County and in Clermont County, about 40 churches support Inter Parish Ministry, a faith-based nonprofit that supplies food and clothing to needy families.

On Aug. 5 at Mount Carmel Christian Church, the ministry will hold its annual school supply giveaway to its clients. They will receive backpacks, school supplies and $25 gift cards to Payless so they can have new shoes for school, said Sarah Cadle, the ministry’s service coordinator.

Last year, 253 children were helped in the giveaway, including high school students. Most school supply drives don’t include high school students, Cadle said, because some of the things they need are pretty expensive.

About 10 of the ministry’s member churches participate in the back-to-school giveaway, Cadle said. It’s a real ecumenical bunch that includes Faith United Church of Christ, St. John Fisher Roman Catholic Church, Indian Hill Church (Episcopal/Presbyterian) and Horizon Community Church.

It takes about 50 volunteers to sort through the supplies, box them up, haul them to the church, unload them and give them to the client families. They work closely with the clients and spend time with them, Cadle said.

“It is really a feel-good program for everybody,” she said. “The clients are so appreciative.”

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