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Louise Dardis, assistant superintendent for West Fargo Public Schools, speaks of the needs of children and families as the United Way of Cass-Clay kicks off the annual school supplies drive Thursday at the Fargodome. Dave Wallis / The Forum

United Way kicks off 12th Annual School Supply Drive

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Autumn: temperatures cool, leaves change and the familiar sights and sounds of another school year fill the air.

It can be a time of great excitement and expectation for students eager to get to work, especially if they have brand-new school supplies to break in.

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Some students, however, do not have that luxury.

The United Way of Cass Clay kicked off its 12th Annual School Supply Drive last Thursday at the Fargodome. It is the third year the Dome has hosted the event, one "we are very proud to be involved with," Fargodome general manager Rob Sobolik said.

The campaign solicits donations of backpacks and school supplies to be dropped off at sites across Cass and Clay counties. The backpacks, filled with supplies, are then given to students who need them most, said Thomas Hill, Community Impact Associate with the United Way of Cass Clay.

The Supply Drive runs through Aug. 16. Backpacks are the most-needed donation, but other supplies include markers, colored pencils, scissors, highlighters, pencil boxes or pouches, pencils, notebooks, pens, erasers, binders, folders, loose-leaf papers and crayons.

Supplies collected from the drive are available to anyone in Cass or Clay Counties. There is a registration form, however, so that the United Way can measure population statistics. According to a press release, the drive is intended to help any family that has a financial need.

Drop-off sites include the Fargodome, Moorhead Center Mall, United Way of Cass Clay (219 7th St S, Fargo), Wal-Mart in Dilworth and Fargo, West Acres Shopping Center, Curves in Fargo, First International Bank & Trust, and NorthStar Telecom Inc/Verizon Wireless. Monetary donations can be directed to the United Way. For more information or to volunteer, contact the United Way of Cass-Clay at 701-237-5050 or www.unitedwaycassclay.org.

Distribution of donated backpacks and items will take place on two dates: Saturday, Aug. 14, at the Fargodome, and Thursday, Aug. 19, at both the West Fargo Vets Arena and Moorhead Center Mall.

Last year, the School Supply Drive outfitted more than 4,100 students across 63 schools in West Fargo, Fargo, Moorhead and the surrounding area, with roughly $100,000 worth of supplies. Of the families helped, 83 percent reported children on free or reduced lunches, Hill said.

This year's goal is 4,500 backpacks, a 13 percent increase.

One of the largest concentrations of recipients from last year's program was the West Fargo School District, which had more than 550 students receive donations. Of them, 245 attended Cheney Middle School.

West Fargo Assistant Superintendent Louis Dardis said she was "humble to report" about the district's need.

More than 65 percent of recipients reported household annual incomes of less than $25,000, she said. Overall, it is estimated that 8,000 children qualify for free or reduced lunches, and more than 4,000 are living at or below the poverty level in the Cass-Clay region.

"That means all of the schools in our area are dealing with the impact of poverty," said Dardis, who also is a new member of United Way of Cass Clay Board of Trustees.

A shortage of supplies also can cause emotional issues, such as embarrassment for the students and a strain on teachwho have to try to teach them, she said.

Though demographics vary from child to child, one group of students that is hit particularly hard are new immigrants to the area.

"New Americans arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs and hope for a better tomorrow," said Nicole Madsen, English Language Learner Coordinator for West Fargo Public Schools. The School Supply Drive "offers hope to new American students."

The distribution program also helps alleviate their anxiety and uncertainty, she said, and is particularly exciting for teachers because it assures supplies for their students.

Hill said the campaign ran out of supplies last year, so that is why the United Way is shooting for a larger target this year. Hill also said that one of the biggest impacts can come from financial donations. The United Way is able to "leverage donations" through vendors in order to buy items in bulk, he said.

Companies and organizations could hold their own "mini drives," Hill said, and then bring in all donations at once.

And if the hot weather gets contributors down, have no fear; the Fargodome is more than ready for it.

"We have from 2,500 to 5,000 square feet of air-conditioned space," Sobolik said. "Nobody has any reason not to come out and help with this wonderful project."

"Please, donate for the kids," Dardis said.

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