It takes a village to support a student — communities supplying students and teachers
With fundraisers, donation drives and back-to-school events, where these resources go is just as important as if they’re received
Cardboard boxes are stacked in piles across the gym, filled with a rainbow of folders and spiral notebooks. Volunteers in matching black t-shirts work in an assembly line to place boxes of pencils, crayons and glue sticks into backpacks. All the while, kind words and laughter reverberate throughout the gym, making the work go just a bit faster.
This is the Salt Lake Valley Stuff the Bus drive to help prepare children for the school year ahead of them by making sure they have supplies. The backpacks stuffed here on the Wasatch Front will go to more than 4,000 students and the monetary donations will benefit more than 10,000. Although the school supplies took only four days to collect and assemble, donations have been gathered over the past two months by generous neighbors and businesses alike.
This isn’t limited to Utah, either. Stuff the Bus and similar drives are popping up all over the United States, as a vast majority of schools lack both physical and monetary resources necessary for the school year.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation teamed with local retailers to provide thousands of school supplies, including pencils, pens, crayons, notebooks and 500 backpacks to area school kids. The Danville, Illinois, Farmer’s Market collected school supplies and donations for students in their area, while Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, working with the State Employees’ Credit Union and Communities In Schools of North Carolina, held a drive there.
Everyone can do their part to ensure students are well-prepared for the school year ahead of them, whether donating time, money or materials. And to those who believe they have nothing to gain by donating, BankRate emphasizes that material donations, not just cash, are apt to be tax deductible. You can help yourself while helping students and teachers in your area.
The sad truth is this: Families can’t always afford to meet students’ needs. Over 15 million children won’t have the school supplies they need this year, KSL reports, because their families won’t be able to afford what’s included in back-to-school supply lists. Students often rely on outside resources that almost anyone who’s willing can contribute, from supplies to volunteer time, sponsoring events and more.
That’s where Utah shines. The Beehive State is reportedly the most generous state in the U.S., according to data from WalletHub’s 2022 study. The ranking was based on 19 different factors across the 50 states, including share of income donated, volunteer rate and share of the population who were collecting and distributing supplies. Utah’s also the 4th fastest-growing state, World Population Review reported. Utah residents have an average of 3.4 kids, compared to the 2.1 average in other states, which adds to the overcrowding of schools and classrooms.
But that hasn’t deterred Utahns from lending a hand.
A united front
2022 marks the 12th year that United Way of Salt Lake has been coordinating the Stuff the Bus drive in Utah and the first supply drive following the pandemic. Volunteer Projects Coordinator Brianne Butterfield spoke to Deseret News on the effect events like this have on the community — and vice versa.
“I think what’s amazing about Stuff the Bus is that it’s really well known within the community so that we see a lot more individual donations and donors,” Butterfield said. “We also have a ton of corporate partners that are amazing. They help us with our yearly events.”
This year’s donations totaled 37,000 school supplies and just under $40,000 in monetary donations, putting United Way within striking distance of its fundraising goal for the year. This isn’t the only kind of event that’s held by the organization, either. In the past, United Way has worked with schools and the community to organize student-focused events such as service projects, in-person and virtual tutoring and “Read Across America” — a weeklong event aimed at promoting a love of reading in K-12 students.
Butterfield said that a critical part of the United Way model is asking how the organization and the community can help schools have the resources they need for years to come.
“We’re really focusing on systemic changes but at the same time we still have these immediate needs,” Butterfield said. “That’s where we as a volunteer team can step in … while at large, our organization is working with hundreds of community partners.”
This volunteer work is felt and needed by a vast number of schools, even alongside the donation drives that are coordinated internally. Jeremy Brooks, assistant principal of Cottonwood High School, gave Deseret News examples of some of the ways schools raise funds for their programs, noting that these fundraisers depend heavily on community engagement.
The school district Cottonwood High belongs to, Granite School District, has an approved list of vendors and businesses that the school can work with to help fund programs within the school. Brooks said that there is an application process, however, for an organization to make monetary or supply donations if they want to support the school.
Brooks also talked about the Granite Education Foundation, an educational organization aimed at “improving educational outcomes by strengthening the Granite School District Community.” This is done through service projects, student aid, supply drives and several other efforts to provide support to students, their families, schools and teachers — and is primarily funded through donations from members of the community.
School PTAs are one such community partner also busy preparing for the start of the school year. Utah PTA President Stacey Mollinet oversees advocacy work in schools, communicating with legislators and bringing resources to parents and schools.
Mollinet said that fundraisers that bring a community together — rather than solely raise money or resources — are the most effective, as they give community members incentive to participate beyond direct donation. Carnivals, fun runs, chalk walks and read-a-thons were just a few examples she gave of the events coordinated by PTA groups that encourage engagement.
When combined with direct support given from individuals and businesses, events like these support students and teachers alike, in and out of the classroom.
“We fundraise so we can provide programs and activities to help benefit the kids to augment what they already do in the schools,” Mollinet said. “PTAs really try to help teachers; it’s been a tough year for (them). They’ve been overworked and we couldn’t have volunteers in the classroom because of COVID.”
The 2020-2021 school year deviated from the norm of past years, as classrooms shifted from four walls to zoom calls. Students were equally supervised by parents and teachers throughout the school day and while organizations like United Way worked alongside schools to provide children with supplementary tutoring during distance learning, students still struggled academically. According to McKinsey & Company, the average K-12 student was five months behind in math and four months behind in reading, following the pandemic.
“Teachers are facing a lack of respect. We’re trying to support them and help parents understand the hard work that teachers are doing,” Mollinet said.
Despite the hardships teachers have faced, they are still expected to continue to educate children with the same rate of success as before. Mollinet said that many teachers have left the profession because of how overwhelming and under-supported their work has been.
United Way’s Butterfield also commented on this lack of support for teachers, as her partner is also an educator. Even after the pandemic, teachers face hurdles that make singlehandedly funding their classroom exceptionally difficult, she said.
“A lot comes out of our personal pocket every year to make sure the kids have crayons, scissors and glue sticks. Those things add up and we’re seeing it get even crazier with inflation,” Butterfield said. “It means a lot to see community members stepping up, coming out and still helping even when times are tough. Everybody’s feeling it.”
Brooks agreed. When he was asked where support (monetary and donations) was most needed in schools, he said that teachers were getting the short end of the stick.
“One area we would love to spend additional funds is towards teachers’ morale. We’ve noticed that since COVID, teachers have struggled more now than in previous years,” Brooks said. “Additional funding would open up options to incentivize and reward teachers for the great things they’re doing. This funding could also be applied toward classroom rewards for student performance or behavior/attendance.”
Teachers have turned to using online fundraising platforms such as Adopt a Classroom, DonorsChoose and even Amazon wishlists to supply their classrooms, as fundraising efforts often aren’t quite enough to support students year-round. Members of any community can help keep classrooms filled with scissors, rulers and erasers by privately donating through these platforms, with proceeds going directly to teachers in need.
“Teachers and parents are partners in the educational process. We need to work together to educate our kids,” Mollinet said. “PTA can help fill in some of the gaps for the kids ... but we can also support teachers.”
While Utah public schools may have hallways packed to the brim and students sharing Sharpie markers, donations from members of the community help ease the burden teachers carry and uplift children so they can obtain a quality education.
“When community members are able to participate in these school fundraisers, it becomes a big support for the programs and reduces the burden on many of our families that struggle,” Brooks said.