If you have school-age children, you probably spent the last few weeks shopping with your kids for new clothes and buying your way through your school's list of recommended supplies. I wonder — how much did you spend? I bought everything on my 8-year-old daughter's school supply list, and it cost more than $100, not to mention the new outfits, sneakers and backpack. That's a price tag not all families can afford, and with multiple kids, it can be a sizable expense.
My family lives in a city that’s home to a huge immigrant population, and nearly 70 percent of public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. There's so much need in my community that the public school system recently decided to provide all students with free breakfast and lunch every day. And speaking of need — let's talk about teachers. Most of them don’t get enough financial support from their schools for classroom supplies, which leaves them on the hook for hundreds of dollars out of their own pockets each year. (I saw this firsthand growing up, as my mother was a teacher and a principal for decades. And when she was a principal, she spent thousands of dollars of her own money instead of hundreds.)
It was clear our back-to-school purchase list included not just supplies for our individual student, but classroom supplies as well, like boxes of tissues, packages of printer paper and containers of Clorox wipes. My family is happy to send those in, as we are can afford them, and we appreciate how much our public school teachers do for the children.
If you're in a position to help needy students at your local schools, there are many ways to do that, both big and small.
1. Donate supplies. Pencils, erasers, notebooks, coloring supplies — as you pick these up for your child, consider grabbing an extra of each if you can swing it. Send them in with a note for the teacher that they can go to anyone who needs them. The same goes for classroom supplies like paper towels or hand sanitizer — teachers in our district usually put out a call for these a few times a year.
2. Donate clothes. Some schools maintain a small supply of clothes — a thrift store, of sorts — to provide clothing and shoes to students or families in need. Our local elementary school does this and puts out a call once a year or so for donations. This student-run clothing store in Stratham, New Hampshire, gives all clothes away for free and it's open to everyone, regardless of need, to take away the awkwardness that some students might feel by using such a store. Call your local public schools to ask about clothing donation drops near you.
3. Give to your local food banks. You can give donations of food, time or money to food banks to help needy families in your community. Your local supermarket may make it easy with pre-packed boxes you can buy for about $10 each and drop-off bins where you can leave non-perishable items for food pantries.
Around the holidays, many schools will operate their own food drives to benefit students and their families. Our school's notice home to families makes a special plea for baby supplies — diapers, wipes, formula and baby food can be expensive, so they're often in high demand. We usually send in a few grocery bags of supplies, and we buy them separately at the store and save the receipt for a small tax deduction.
4. Volunteer. Whether you raise your hand to go in and read to classrooms on designated days or chaperone a field trip, you'll get a firsthand look at the kids in your local school. I'll never forget spending one December morning in my daughter's first-grade class, where kids were chattering excitedly about the upcoming holidays. I overheard one boy say he doesn't believe in Santa because Santa always forgets to come to his house. Heart-broken, I later emailed the teacher to ask if there was any way we could help, and she connected me with the school social worker who was able to offer some options.
5. Adopt a student. The state of Washington is home to The Homes for Students' Adopt-a-Student program, which "aims to match financially challenged, at-risk and homeless students with donors who are interested in helping these disadvantaged students attend their institution and achieve their academic dreams." The charity helps more than 58,000 homeless students nationwide.
6. Donate a washing machine. Such a generous move would definitely be going above and beyond. But here's the thing: One in five students in the U.S. have trouble finding clean clothes to wear to school, according to a study of 600 teachers conducted by appliance company Whirlpool. Many parents have to use laundromats or a friend's house, which can be tricky with family scheduling, and if money is tight, they may not buy soap. With that in mind, Whirlpool donated 17 pairs of washing machines and dryers to schools in St. Louis and in Fairfield, California. Kids with attendance problems could bring in their laundry to be cleaned while they were in class. The results, according to Fox Business: "Over 90 percent of students had increased attendance, and in particular at-risk youth reported fewer absences, almost two additional weeks in school. The school averaged approximately 50 loads per student and 95 percent of students had more motivation in class."