Press United Way collects school supplies for Somerset County Youngsters

BRIDGEWATER — The Somerset County United Way is looking for more school supplies this year
for a growing number of students who need them.

The Stuff the Bus campaign, an annual drive to collect back-to-school items ranging from pencils to notebooks, will continue until Aug. 23. People can drop off items at the Somerset County United Way, 1011 Route 22 West, Bridgewater.

"The need is greater this year,'' said Irene Natale, who coordinates the Stuff the Bus
program. The supplies are distributed to schools based on the number of children who qualify for reduced or free school lunches. In 2008, there were 5,200 students in Somerset County who qualified. In 2009, the number grew to 5,500. This year, there are more than 6,000 Somerset County students on the list, Natale said.

Natale said the economic downturn may be making it difficult for parents to afford school supplies.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based National Retail Federation survey conducted by BIGresearch, the average family with students in grades K-12 was expected to spend $548.72 on school supplies in 2009. That's a 7.7-percent drop from $594.24 in 2008.

Natale said her biggest need in the Stuff the Bus drive is for backpacks and items such as pocket dictionaries and calculators to fill them. Also, many grade school nurses need new underpants, socks and pants for young children.

"It all adds up,'' Natale said. In 2009, volunteers collected and sorted 40,000 items.
This year, she said, she needs more.

Natale said collecting items for the Stuff The Bus program is a fun summer activity for
corporations and community groups such as Girl Scout Troops. Some families make it a tradition to pick up a few extra items when shopping for their own supplies, she said.

Nancy Stober-McCarthy of Hillsborough holds a ""party with a purpose'' each summer. The guests are invited to join her for cocktails, food and music in exchange for a donation for the Stuff the Bus campaign or contributions for the Somerset County Food Bank Network, Somerset Regional Animal Shelter or the Home Front Hearts organization, which supports members of the military and their families.

She has held the Stuff the Bus collection at her parties two consecutive years. Each year, guests have contributed a shopping bag full of items such as rulers, erasers, pencils, pens, notebooks and folders.

"It's an investment toward the children's future so they have supplies they need and some of the resources they need to succeed in school,'' Stober-McCarthy said.

The school supplies drive, which is sponsored by UnitedHealthcare, also is open to
corporations. Corporations may contribute items with logos - such as Post-It notes, messenger bags and pens, Natale said.

Natale keeps track of every item that is collected so she knows how many erasers,
notebooks, pencils and other supplies to give each school. The items are disbursed in bulk, and school officials … often the school nurse … then decide how to distribute the items.

"It is my understanding that when the program began about 21 years ago, it was because a school nurse called United Way and asked for help for a child who had been absent quite frequently in the beginning of a school year. The school nurse, through communication with the child's family, determined that the child did not want to attend school as she was unable to have the supplies she needed because her family could not afford them,'' Natale said.

Some schools have since designated the responsibility to school counselors or other
administrators, but the Somerset County United Way's main communication is still with school's school nurses, she said.

Some nurses distribute the items before school starts by loading up backpacks full of
supplies, Natale said. Others allow families to come in and choose needed items. Many schools keep a stash of items so if a teacher notices a student does not have the proper supplies to do work, students can pick some up mid-year, Natale said.

Kara L. Richardson: 908-243-6621;

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