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Back-to-school sales and a new backpack can energize students’ attitudes toward returning to the classroom. Working under the slogan “Everyone deserves a good first day at school,” a local campaign, Collect for Kids, aims to provide school supplies and backpacks for the county’s low-income students. The campaign is a partnership between about two dozen local organizations and Fairfax County Public Schools. Entering its third year, Collect for Kids has distributed 35,000 backpacks and supplied needed materials to 16,000 students during year one and 20,000 last summer.

In preparation for the first day of school, Sept. 3, Collect for Kids has revamped its website and expanded its efforts to include online donations.

“We have about 47,000 students on free or reduced meals [available to low-income students] and that’s larger than most school districts,” said Jay Garant, Fairfax County Public Schools’ business and community partnerships coordinator. “Not only do these kids come to school without school supplies, but the kids on the cusp of that [income bracket] do, too.”

The impacts of school supplies are academic as well as psychological, Garant said.

“The first impact is to feel accepted as a student. If you come to school and the kid next to you has supplies and you don’t, there’s a psychological impact to that,” he said. “The second is the look of the supplies. We didn’t want to go out and buy all red backpacks [for example] because that can create a stigma.”

Collect for Kids began four years ago as an extension of the nonprofit Kids R First’s efforts.

“We’re sharing our model. Our process is we take custom orders from our schools so that the kids are getting what they need,” said Kids R First founder Susan Ungerer, a former elementary school teacher who started her efforts in her garage in 1995 helping 450 students. In 2012, Kids R First donated supplies to some 18,650 students.

Ungerer was able to create partnerships with large supply stores like Office Depot and Walmart, which agreed to provide deep discounts on items bought in bulk for students. By collaborating, nonprofits say they are able to reduce time spent collecting and distributing supplies.

“To streamline the process, we asked for the money [rather than supply donations] and then we’re able to turn every dollar into $3-$4 worth of school supplies [by buying in bulk],” she said. “Before we collaborated and started this process, no one knew who was helping and where. So there were overlaps in services and gaps. Now we’re able to consolidate our resources.”

Our Daily Bread, a Fairfax nonprofit food pantry, reports it has ramped up its school supply program through the Collect for Kids partnership.

“The nonprofits that run back-to-school programs normally collect supplies, but under this program we’re asking for cash. We’ve been able to pool resources and buy at really deep discounts,” Our Daily Bread Executive Director Lisa Whetzel said. Our Daily Bread focuses on providing supplies to students in the Fairfax and JEB Stuart high school pyramids. “Over the years we’ve expanded but we’re encouraging our donors to give more because there’s still a lot of need.”

JEB Stuart world history teacher James Holcombe, who is a member of Bailey’s Crossroads Rotary Club, said the club has also joined the fray, supporting Our Daily Bread’s efforts.

“JEB Stuart High School has the highest or one of the highest, needs in the county,” he said. “We committed around what we estimated to be about $4,500 in supplies, backpacks and calculators … That translated into about six carloads or trucks of deliveries.”

Organizations under Collect for Kids work with principals, school psychologists and social workers in identifying supply lists and students who need the extra help.

“It’s not a blanketed thing. It’s specific to the school,” Holcombe said. The goal for Stuart is to provide 500 backpacks for ninth graders. “It really does make a difference.”

Learn more about Collect for Kids at collectforkids.org.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com