Compassion for the classrooom

Retired teachers the bulk of volunteers for school supplies drive


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This article was published 10/08/2011 (4249 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It should come as no surprise that the co-ordinators of Winnipeg Harvest’s annual school supplies drive are a pair of retired teachers.

Josie Landry and Susan Hunt — who both used to teach in the Louis Riel School Division — have been volunteering with the Tools For School program for four years, and have been co-ordinating the efforts for three years.

The program’s scheduled launch was Wed., Aug. 3 at the Staples Business Depot at 3669 Portage Ave. in Crestview.

Landry and Hunt are assisted in the sorting that goes on behind the scenes of Tools For School by a small arsenal of volunteers — most of them also retired teachers, as well as the spouses, family and friends of retired teachers.

Despite her years of experience in the classroom, Landry — who lives in the south St. Vital neighbourhood of Vermette — said she was shocked to discover how big the need was during her first year with Tools for School.

“I was totally surprised by how many children needed supplies whose parents couldn’t afford it,” she said.

One way the co-ordinators are making it easier for families in need has been to shift the focus of the program. Instead of receiving requests from individual families, they now ask schools to make a list of the supplies they need.

“The problem with doing it with individual families is taking those thousands of phone calls,” explained Southdale-based Hunt, who said it also meant sending out the supplies individually as well.

Now, while the volunteers are dealing with no fewer number of requests — more, in fact — they can send off fewer, larger packages of supplies to the schools.

Landry said she believes the anonymity of the new system — with teachers recommending children for the program, instead of their parents — is part of the reason that Tools for Schools has seen its request numbers grow dramatically. It received 2,800 requests in 2010 compared to 700 in 2008 and 1,400 in 2009.

“I think that’s why the numbers went off, because often parents are resistant to ask for supplies, or too proud,” Landry said.

David Northcott, executive director of the Weston-based Winnipeg Harvest, had nothing but praise for the volunteers who make Tools for School possible.

“The heart of what we do at Winnipeg Harvest is we share food with hungry families and hungry people, but we’re also very interested in those families’ journeys of getting out of poverty. And the step out is knowledge and education,” he said.

“It’s sort of paying it now and paying it forward, and the volunteers allow us to do both.”

Last year, Landry said, the Tools for Schools program pushed back its distribution date to after the Labour Day — traditionally the busiest back-to-school shopping period — on the advice of the program’s title sponsor.

But that situation ended up being less than ideal, she said.

“The feedback we got from schools is kids weren’t coming to school because they had no supplies. That’s the last thing we want,” Hunt added.

This year, while the campaign officially runs from Aug. 3 to Sept. 9, the Tools for School volunteers will be distributing the bulk of their items on Sept. 3, ahead of the start of school on Sept. 6.

While all school supplies are in demand, Hunt said those that are in high demand but less donated include backpacks, scientific calculators, geometry sets, markers, pencil cases and white glue sticks.

School supplies can be donated at any Staples Business Depot location, or any Winnipeg Public Library, and Goldeyes home games.

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