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For 25 years, school supply drives have been a big part of Charlotte's culture

Ann Doss Helms
About 600 volunteers gathered at Bank of America stadium Tuesday to stuff supplies into book bags for distribution to students in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties.

Hundreds of volunteers gathered at Bank of America Stadium Tuesday to stuff back-to-school backpacks. It's part of a 25-year Charlotte tradition of going big on collecting supplies for students in need.

The scene at the stadium was crowded, noisy and sweaty, with 50 mini-assembly lines set up for volunteers to stuff pencils, erasers and markers into colorful book bags.

Ann Doss Helms
Almost 600 volunteers gathered in the summer heat to stuff book bags at Bank of America Stadium on Tuesday.

"So today we have nearly 600 volunteers that are putting together 20,000 backpacks," said Karen Calder, executive director of Classroom Central. Her group works with the David and Nicole Tepper Foundation and several corporate sponsors to provide supplies to students in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties.

They expect to deliver bags of supplies to 35,000 students in 38 schools.

The mass gathering to load donated supplies into bags is new this year. But it brings back fond memories for Cynthia Marshall, retired president of Communities in Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

In the mid-1990s, supply collections tended to be small. Marshall’s group had been collecting toothpaste and toothbrushes for students and decided to add a few school supplies to its wish list.

Cynthia Marshall.jpeg
Courtesy of Cynthia Marshall
Cynthia Marshall

"And it included alarm clocks, and soap and shampoo and deodorant. Because we learned that students, of course, weren’t coming to school on time because they didn’t have a way to be reminded or to wake up," Marshall recalls.

In 1996, Communities In Schools and Hands On Charlotte launched a School Tools campaign. But it didn’t really take off until 1997, when WSOC-TV signed on.

"They sort of branded it and publicized it widely," Marshall said. "And then (collection) barrels began to appear in different places, thanks to that publicity."

School Tools became a 22-county effort, eventually collecting tons of supplies and requiring huge numbers of volunteers to sort, load and deliver them. Communities in Schools called in the National Guard to help.

School Tools 2007_Barrel Prep with the NC National Guard-1.jpeg
Courtesy of Communities in Schools
National Guard members pose with School Tools organizers in 2007.

"It takes an army, not just a village," Marshall said, laughing.

Plenty of other groups started big supply drives too, stuffing backpacks with everything a child would need to start the school year.

The emergence of social media campaigns, online shopping and donation apps created plenty of other ways to support students and teachers without having to leave your home. But people who turned out to stuff bags at the stadium said there’s something special about gathering in person.

Valerie Robles and Nasif Majeed were working at the AvidXchange table.

"I think it’s a little more special when you’re around a whole group of people, because the energy is really what matters, or it’s really important to me," Robles said.

"Being able to give back, you know, with my strength as a youth, physically, means more than just online or something," said Majeed, 29.

Kimberly Kicklighter.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
Kimberly Kicklighter sponsored an assembly table and invited friends to join her to celebrate her birthday by loading bags for kids in need.

Most of the assembly tables were sponsored by corporations, but Kimberly Kicklighter paid for her own batch of supplies and invited friends to help her celebrate her 48th birthday.

"You know, I remember how important it was to me to have good school supplies and how I loved putting together my book bag before school started," she said.

Marshall, who retired from Communities in Schools in 2006, has her own theory about why school supply drives hold such mass appeal.

"It really gives us a chance to say, 'I see you. I see you as an important part of our community. I see that you are the future and I want to give you a tool to help you get there,' " she said.

"To me, that’s one of the biggest parts of this, is to remember that children often feel invisible," she added. "And this is a way to say, 'You matter.' "

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.