Backpack giveaway combats student poverty in Phoenix area

Nicole Martin of Peoria is responsible for nine children in Arizona's schools.

A foster parent and adoptive mother, Martin estimates it costs $150 per child per year to send them to school with adequate supplies.

She said many families like her own need help to get children the education resources they need.

"Being a big adoptive family, it's expensive," Martin said. "When people help out, it's a large blessing."

Attending Friday's school-supply giveaway at the Office Depot at 4519 E. Thomas Road, Phoenix, Martin's children were among 4,000 students who received backpacks filled with school supplies from the Office Depot Foundation, now in the 16th year of its national program.

Some children wrote notes to the organization thanking them for the supplies.

"I love my (backpack) because it holds whatever I need it to hold," wrote 10-year-old George Panagopoulos of Phoenix.

"It's pink and it's brown!" wrote another small child.

The backpack program has given out 4 million packs nationally containing pencils, paper, markers and crayons since it was established in 2001, said foundation senior manager Dawn Reese. She estimated 200,000 were provided in 2016 alone.

"We believe in making a difference in a child's life," Reese said. "We believe they deserve to have what they need from day one."

Child poverty pervasive in Arizona

About 1,700 schools in Arizona qualified in some way for government assistance in 2011 under Title 1, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

That is more than half of the state's 2,265 schools, according to the data. Title 1 provides financial assistance from the federal government to schools with high numbers of low-income students.

Marilyn Bond, principal at Tomahawk Elementary in west Phoenix, knows her families are facing financial hurdles. Tomahawk qualifies for Title 1 aid and in 2015 had 213 out of the school's 544 enrolled students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, according to the most recent NCES figures.

Children share notes thanking the Office Depot Foundation for providing free backpacks and school supplies, Friday at the Office Depot on Thomas Road. (Photo: Adrian Hedden | azcentral)

Bond said educators must continue to work with charities to ensure students get what they need.

"Our job is to be champions for the kids," she said. "We are touching the lives of these kids. They will be changed by what we do."

Vickie Isaac, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Child Safety, said no student should have to rely solely on the government. She said initiatives such as Office Depot's could go a long way in providing a sense of normalcy to students living in poverty.

"The need is tremendous in Arizona," Isaac said. "Kids shouldn't be raised by governments, they should be raised by families. These kinds of programs help them feel normal."

Local leaders voice support

Steve Chucri, Maricopa County District 2 supervisor, said he attended Friday's event for 4 million reasons: the 4 million impoverished children who would be able to walk into a classroom with the same tools as everybody else.

"We were all kids once," he said. "We remember that first lunch box or crayons. There was a sense of pride. Those are some of the very items in these backpacks."

Chucri said teachers are called upon too often to pay out of pocket when children can't afford their own supplies.

"The sad case is that teachers often have to fill that void," he said. "It's just one spoke in a big wheel of needs. Without this, we would be at a severe disadvantage. It's giving them what they need, but also the confidence to have the right supplies when they compare themselves to their classmates."

Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo addresses the crowd at Friday's backpack giveaway at Home Depot on Thomas Road. (Photo: Adrian Hedden | azcentral)

Lela Alston, who represents state legislative District 24, spoke at the event, voicing her concern that students should be able to attend school with enough support if they need it.

"It is so very important that students come to school with a sense of well-being," she said. "This really helps achieve that. The work we're doing here is so important to get these kids in school with what they need to be successful."

Steve Gallardo, Maricopa County supervisor for District 5,  said all of the schools in his district qualify for Title 1 government assistance. He said charities aimed at low-income students can begin to make a difference in the lives of struggling families.

"My families are struggling every day," Gallardo said. "It's hard for them to provide the supplies when they're struggling to put food on the table. For the first time, many of these kids are going to walk into class with a backpack and the basic supplies they need."

For Martin, just knowing the needs of families are being considered and valued helps her continue to raise her own and send them to school.

"It helps you feel like people care," she said. "That they know what's going on and have a heart to help."

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