Q: I overheard a mom in a checkout line tell her kids that she had little money for school supplies this year, and they'd have to "scrounge." I wanted to offer to pay for some, but it was awkward. Her comment haunts me. Getting new supplies was always huge for me. How can I donate to help kids in our community get what they need?
A: You've just had a vivid reminder that many children in this country won't head back to school with shiny new pencils and the many other items on their class-supply lists.
More than 16 million children in the United States -- over 20 percent -- live in poverty, says Connie Matthiessen, who blogs on education at greatschools.org: "Poverty is defined as income below $22,811 for a family of two adults and two children. Many more Americans who don't fit this definition are, by any measure, very poor."
Matthiessen says the crisis has turned the back-to-school season into a season of giving: "Around the country, organizations, schools, churches and individuals are donating clothing and school supplies so low-income kids can start the school year with plenty of pencils and notebooks -- and maybe even a brand-new outfit or two."
If you want to make a difference at a particular school, what works best is to contact the person who heads the PTO or PTA, says Tim Sullivan, publisher of PTO Today (ptotoday.com).
These organizations often work with a school guidance counselor or resource officer to coordinate getting supplies to kids who lack them. "It makes good sense to keep the volunteers a notch away from the very private information about the neediest of students," says Sullivan. "Once you find the appropriate staff member who can determine who is eligible and be the go-between, this is a great service to families and the school."
If volunteers don't pitch in, many teachers dip into their own pockets for those supplies. Sullivan suggests checking TeacherLists.com, where thousands of teachers post items they know they need that school budgets won't cover.
Matthiessen says you could contribute to a community organization in your area that sponsors back-to-school drives. She cites examples: Each year Northern Kentucky Harvest distributes hundreds of free backpacks filled with school supplies at its annual Backpacks and Breakfast event. In Scottsdale, Ariz., local police team up with a community center to create a back-to-school "store," where 500 students shop for free supplies. In many communities, the Salvation Army operates a "Clothes for Kids" program.
A donation to the Kids in Need Foundation (kinf.org) helps provide free school supplies to many of the nation's lowest-income schools through a network of resource centers and teacher grants.
Adoptaclassroom.org enables you to supply specific classrooms. At donorschoose.org, you can help fund a learning project that interests you. Once a project is funded, all donors get thanks and photos from the classroom they supported.
Small donations from "citizen philanthropists" like you can provide a big back-to-school boost for many of our nation's poorest students.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)