Viewpoints: Helping kids with schools supplies will pay huge dividends

Visit an Office Depot or the school supply section of a Target this time of year and you’ll see adorable first graders looking for princess backpacks and high schoolers in search of the perfect graphing calculator. You’ll see harried moms juggling multiple school supply lists, steering their kids from the lunchbox aisle to frilly folders.

What you won’t see are kids who are homeless or poor.

According to the National Retail Federation, families will spend, on average, more than $600 on school supplies this year. While clothing may account for some of this spending, the cost of standard supplies, not to mention calculators and complicated binders, are out of reach for many kids.

I come from a family of educators, and in our combined experience, from preschool through eighth grade, we’ve seen too many students whose lack of adequate supplies have affected them both academically and socially.

Consider the student who stops by daily to borrow electrical tape to repair his backpack. When he stops coming in, you wonder what has happened. Then you see that he’s carrying his textbooks and binders in a paper bag.

Consider the student who sits quietly, doing nothing in class. Halfway through the lesson, you discover that he’s not taking notes – not because he’s bored or has tuned out – but because he doesn’t have paper or pencil. And he has asked to borrow items from his peers so many times that they roll their eyes and shake their heads “no.”

Consider the fourth grader whose mission project is due, or the seventh grader who needs to craft a three-dimensional cell using supplies from home. Trouble is, there’s no budget to purchase craft items, and if the student has a place to call home, there likely isn’t yarn, fabric and styrofoam for the assignment. You get the idea.

I saw a woman in Target the other day. She had a big red shopping cart filled with hundreds of packs of colored pencils, crayons and markers. She had a second cart filled with disinfecting wipes. I assumed that she was an educator who knows the extreme need in her school district, or perhaps was buying for a nonprofit for foster youth, maybe a family resource center.

But she got me thinking. Those who aren’t involved in education may not realize that even in the “good” areas, schools have homeless students and students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. You may not know who they are, but rest assured, the school’s principal, the school psychologist, the English language coordinator and probably even the school secretary, knows which kids are in need.

So if you’re shopping for last-minute supplies with your kids, or if hearing about kids who do without tugs at something inside your heart, please consider contacting a school. Ask them what their needs are. Do they have a program to give backpacks filled with supplies to kids whose parents can’t or won’t provide them? Do they need gift cards for shoes and winter coats, or maybe boxes of healthy snacks for kids who come to school with nothing to eat?

Helping kids who do without will help them scholastically by allowing them to focus on learning, rather than on where they can find supplies or quiet an empty stomach. Providing kids with supplies will also help them socially, allowing them to fit in with their peers, giving them more opportunities in school and throughout life.