Melissa remembers coming to Bellingham with her two young daughters, Olivia and Alice in early 2013. Fleeing a domestic violence situation, with little money, and with no family or friends here to turn to for help, she found herself suddenly homeless. "It was scary," she recounts, "my girls helped keep me strong."
Before long she was able to get a room at Agape House, an emergency housing program run by the Lighthouse Mission for women and children, and a few months later, with help from an Opportunity Council case manager, got into an apartment here in town.
Still, with the father not paying child support and being unable to work due to a serious chronic back condition, finances were tight and there wasn't much room for expenditures beyond the basic necessities.
With school approaching, the Opportunity Council's annual Backpack and School Supply Drive was able to help put together one small but meaningful piece of the puzzle, setting up her daughter Olivia with a brand new purple backpack with yellow, blue and pink hearts.
"I love it!" Olivia says with obvious affection for the backpack. "I used it all the way through kindergarten and I will use it now for first grade!"
With little prompting she goes on to talk about the importance of school to her. "I love school! I love learning! When I was in hindergarten, I was the smartest kid in class!"
Children like Olivia are the reason we believe our annual Backpack and School Supply Drive is so important. Though her family may be going through a tough time right now, we know she deserves every opportunity to receive a great education and make the most of herself.
We all remember that annual ritual of going off to school on the first day. In old family albums I have a series of photographs my mom took of me as I went off to the catch the bus on day one: a new haircut, new school clothes and a new backpack full of fresh supplies. The first day was important, seeing old friends, making new ones, feeling ready (or not so ready) to take on the unknown possibilities of the coming year.
Succeeding in school and growing up is tough enough for all children. Imagine adding to the mix the pressures of being homeless or very low-income. While your classmates are showing off their new backpacks and binders and colored-pencil sets, consider being the kid pulling out the odd accumulation of supplies gathered from secondhand stores, or worse yet, not having anything at all.
While the economy may be slowly picking up, poverty, unfortunately, isn't going away anytime soon. According to census bureau statistics, over 30,000 people in Whatcom County are low-income. If we split out the demographics, 5,000 of these are school-aged children and teens.
At the Opportunity Council, we know that every child in our community matters, regardless of their background or how much money their parents earn, and we all benefit when each student is given the utmost opportunity to learn and grow.
The school supply drive is one small but important way that we get to affirm this and help ensure that every student starts off the school year feeling good about themselves and ready to succeed.
And the drive goes beyond just supplies. Monetary donations are used to help families in need cover some of the additional costs of going to school, be it buying gym clothes, paying for an ASB card, or covering fees for a field trip or a band uniform or sports team fee. Your contributions help level the playing field, so that every student has access to a quality education.
In closing, we'll let Melissa have the final word about what the school supply drive has meant to her as she brought her family through a difficult couple of years. "It helps. Because when you can't afford to provide everything for your family, it's wonderful to have a community that cares."
The 22nd annual backpack and school supply drive is 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 6, at the Opportunity Council's main office, 1111 Cornwall Ave., and at the Bellingham Walmart, 4420 Meridian St.
Donations provide backpacks and school supplies to students K-12 who are low-income and homeless in Whatcom County. While Bellingham Schools supply the majority of supplies to students, backpacks are still needed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matthew Brouwer is the outreach and development coordinator for the Bellingham-based Opportunity Council, which serves Whatcom, Island and San Juan counties. For more information online, go to oppco.org.