08/02/15: Precious pencils and paper

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

SIX YEARS OLD, the soon-to-be first grader’s favorite colors are pink and purple.

That’s all I know about her. No name, just an identification number, which I will use when I deliver a backpack and required school supplies to the homeless shelter.

It was just enough information, though, to transport me back to the time when I was a first-grader: the fat red pencils, the large-lined paper with the dashes in the middle on which we practiced our penmanship, the little box that stored our supplies on the shelf under our seats. And glue — always white glue — that was as much fun on our hands as it was on the construction paper. Mrs. May’s class was a magical time.

I’ve not thought about that stuff in years.

And I never gave much thought to where the supplies came from.

It’s not as if my family had much money, because we didn’t. When I was in first grade, I had six older siblings also in school. I can only imagine the financial strain it placed on my parents.

Not having any children of my own meant that my recent participation in the back-to-school frenzy was limited to giving money to organizations that helped out. No doubt that’s what I would have done this year, too, had I not received an email about Adopt-A-Student. Among the hundreds of emails I receive daily, this one stood out.

It was enough to prompt me to visit the website, www.adopt-a-student.com.

As described on the site, this program is different: they help individual children.

The program is a project of the for-profit company, Image Services Staffing. Employees volunteer their time, coordinating between contributors and the students. Shelters provide Adopt-A-Student basic information — an individual identification number, age, gender, favorite color and school — and Adopt-A-Student matches the kids with donors. Donors take supplies to the shelters, all of which are tax-exempt and provide a receipt for the donation.

The program started in 2009 with 114 children in four homeless shelters. It has grown to more than 700 children in shelters across Hampton Roads. I signed up.

Given my choice of a child in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk or Hampton, I chose one in Norfolk. Within hours, I received the information. Although I had read a description of the information I was to receive, somehow reading it made it much more personal. I wondered — did such a program exist all those years ago when I was a first-grader?

The program, like many others, has a stated mission of helping the area’s neediest students with the supplies needed “to start the school year with pride and self esteem.”

For those who lack the time to shop, gift cards can be donated to the shelters. And they also facilitate bulk supply donations. Adopt-A-Student accepts no money for this program.

The supplies list is familiar, even all these years later. White glue is still on there, as is a supply box. And pencils, although the fat red ones I remember are nowhere to be found. About the only thing on the list that we didn’t use back then is dry erase markers.

I’ve not yet completed my shopping for my adopted student. I’m still looking for the right backpack — in pink and purple, of course.