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Community ensures no child struggles for want of a pen

Friday, August 16th, 2013 | Posted by
Jaiden Muro, 6, and her brother Gaven, 4, sort through new school supplies from backpacks distributed by The Living Room volunteers at the Church of the Incarnation. Jaiden will attend Steele Lane Elementary School and Gaven will start preschool.  (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Jaiden Muro, 6, and her brother Gaven, 4, sort through new school supplies from backpacks distributed by The Living Room volunteers at the Church of the Incarnation. Jaiden will attend Steele Lane Elementary School and Gaven will start preschool.
(John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

By ASA HESS-MATSUMOTO / Santa Rosa Correspondent

Back-to-school shopping means buying new clothes, haircuts, school supplies, spending an average of $634.78 this year, according to the National Retail Federation in Washington, D.C.

For poorer families, back-to-school shopping can break the bank.

“We’ve seen moms in tears,” said Redwood Gospel Mission Executive Director Jeff Gilman, 54. “The cost to outfit one kid may not be a problem at a glance to someone, but when you have to provide that for five kids and you’re poor, it’s overwhelming.”

To ease that economic strain, a number of local organizations and nonprofits help offset the costs each new school year brings with drives, fundraisers and other events.

The Salvation Army provides qualifying families with gift cards for shopping sprees.

The nonprofit Caring Strangers delivers coats and backpacks filled with school supplies to children in Santa Rosa and Petaluma homeless shelters.

Threads For Teens, a nonprofit begun by Newman High School graduate Allyson Ahlstrom, delivers clothes and accessories to young girls throughout the county.

The City Kids Festival, the county’s largest event, is hosted by the Redwood Gospel Mission in conjunction with 30 local churches, providing backpacks and other classroom necessities to more than 1,000 children.

“It’s about more than the backpack,” said Caring Strangers co-founder Lois Shelton. “If you extrapolate a child’s experiences from first grade to when they are an adult, it really affects their self-esteem to not have a backpack. The effects build up over time.”

Volunteers from throughout the city have stepped forward to help provide school supplies for elementary school children.

“Quite often we have volunteers who will pay extra money out of their own pockets,” said Major Joe Murray of Salvation Army, Santa Rosa Corps. He holds a receipt from a recent shopping spree in which one volunteer nearly doubled the value of the provided gift card.

Few of the organizations maintain a direct relationship to any given school. Most focus on children who fall between kindergarten and eighth grade, as preschoolers typically do not need as much support and high school students have more work opportunities.

Some organizations demand extensive applications with details of family income, while others require little more than name and proof of residence. The organizations that collect data report that many of their clients are Hispanic, single parents, living below the poverty line and/or had two or more children.

Through the combined efforts of these and other organizations, roughly one in every five children enrolled in Santa Rosa’s 42 elementary schools receive help with back-to-school expenses.

Many say the ratio is both something to be celebrated and lamented.

Caring Strangers has delivered 1,920 backpacks to date, “a concern in terms of the amount of people that need help,” said Shelton. “I’m glad I can help the kids, but I’d rather the need not exist to begin with, you know?”

But for Redwood Gospel Mission’s Volunteer Director Alice Lowe, 58, the rewards of helping children will always make a task worth doing.

“One person can make a difference for another,” Lowe said. “We all have a responsibility to be looking out for these opportunities. This is one such opportunity.”

For more information about theRedwood Gospel Mission’s backpack drive, call 578-1830 or visit srmission.org/Backpacks.html.

For information about The Salvation Army’s gift card program, call 542-0981 or visit salvationarmysantarosa.org/programs/back-to-school.

For information about Caring Strangers, visit caringstrangers.com or call 577-0100.

For information about Threads for Teens, call 483-9128 or visit threadsforteens.org.

  • KFB

    It warmed my heart to participate in The City Kids Festival by volunteering to hand out backpacks today. Thank Redwood Gospel Mission for all that you do for our community!

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Ann Hutchinson is our Santa Rosa correspondent.
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