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United Way volunteer Kassi Hinders carries backpacks filled with school supplies to a waiting family Thursday at Veterans Memorial Arena. Michael Vosburg/The Forum

Backpack donations end nightmare for thousands of F-M students

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Imagine for a moment...

It's the first day of school. You're in elementary school, and excited to start a new year.

Fresh from the bus, you race inside, but soon begin to hear whispers; subtle, inaudible phrases that gradually rise in volume. Kids are pointing at you and snickering. Suddenly, the whole school is in an uproar, laughing hysterically.

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It's then you realize what is so funny: you've shown up wearing underwear - and nothing else.

Nightmares like this plague students all over the globe. Though the chance of actually showing up to school in just your skivvies is slim, it does create a sense of dread, nonetheless.

There is another nightmare, however, that is much more real and prevalent in today's society: that of poverty. Going to school without even the most basic of supplies for the upcoming year can be highly stressful on students, as well as parents and teachers.

But thanks to a combined effort from the Fargo-Moorhead community, local businesses, and the United Way of Cass-Clay, there will be more than 4,500 students who will not have to live out that scenario.

The 12th Annual United Way School Supply drive, which ended Aug. 18, netted 4,638 backpacks filled with supplies for students in Cass and Clay counties. The quota easily surpassing the goal of 4,500 backpacks set in mid-July.

"It was extremely successful" said Kristina Hein, the Community Impact and Public Relations Director for the United Way of Cass-Clay. "We put out the call about a week-and-a-half ago that we were running short, and the community really responded to the need."

When the United Way sent out the APB for more supplies, they were well below their goal, having collected slightly more than 1,000 backpacks. But in a seemingly short while, the community reacted.

"I think people are always really compassionate about this project," Hein said. "It's a tangible cause," because they immediately see the impact of their donation.

The numbers

During last year's school supply drive, West Fargo's Cheney Middle school had the largest, single population of students needing backpacks at 245 - and that was after supplies ran out. That means of the 552 bags distributed to West Fargo schools, nearly 45 percent went to that school alone.

"Our general public needs to realize that we have quite a population of families that struggle financially," West Fargo assistant superintendent Louise Dardis said. "If they do not fall below the poverty level, they are still living paycheck-to-paycheck."

Last year, 83 percent of families receiving supplies from the United Way reported being enrolled in the free- or reduced-lunch program at their school. Likewise, the majority of supplies go to students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Though final school recipient numbers from this year's supply drive have not been tabulated, 1,071 backpacks were donated at West Fargo's Veterans Arena alone last week.

"We had an absolutely huge line," Hein said.

"People at the head of the line had gotten there at 2:30," Dardis said. The distribution didn't start until 4 p.m. "By the time it started, the line wrapped all the way around the sidewalk to the front entrance of the high school."

The number of backpacks donated at Vets Arena did not necessarily go to West Fargo families, Dardis said. There were families from all over the metro area, as well as outlying communities. Last year, for example, 10 percent of the supplies went to students in schools like North Cass, Hillsboro and Central Cass.

Overall, 4,401 backpacks were donated during the distribution days last week in Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead. That means there are more than 200 bags with supplies left to go to students who may not have been able to make it to one of the distribution events, and will show up to the first day of class without supplies.

Donations of supplies and backpacks still are being accepted, too, and can be dropped off at the United Way of Cass-Clay office at 219 7th St. S in Fargo. Financial donations also are welcome via mail or online at www.unitedwaycassclay.org.

Deeper impact

Though receiving required school supplies is important for learning in the classroom, the benefit goes much further than simply tangibility.

"There are multiple positive impacts," Dardis said. "Socially, (students) come to school with new supplies like every other student, so they look like every other student. They take great pride in having new supplies."

There also are emotional benefits, Dardis said, which translate to academics. And while families are lifted of some financial burden for their child's education, teachers see benefits, as well.

"There is a sense of relief that ripples out to parents and teachers," Hein said.

Teachers always are looking out for their students, Dardis said, so when they see them struggling merely from a lack of supplies, their heart goes out.

"They are constantly looking for ways to quietly keep kids on the same playing field," Dardis said. Once they get supplies, "it is one avenue they no longer have to search for."

West Fargo schools open Tuesday, Aug. 31, officially signaling the end of summer.

"We're always excited to have kids back in school," Dardis said. "It gets quiet over the summer. We're busy, but it's a different kind of busy than when kids are here.

"It's nice to get back to what we're hired and happy to do."

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