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Back-to-School Shop to end but aid it offers won’t

MIDDLEBURY — The Addison County Back-to-School Shop — as we now know it — will be closing this summer. But families needing low-cost school supplies for their children can take heart in the fact that the United Way of Addison County (UWAC), public school officials and organizers of the original shop are joining forces to make sure the flow of free- and low-cost supplies will not stop for those who require them.
The Back-to-School Shop was created by volunteers around a dozen years ago to provide affordable pencils, binders, notebooks and other academic supplies to children from local low-income families. Spearheaded by Martha Hill, Helen Haerle, Faith Perkins and Mary Morris, the shop has delivered a combined total of more than $120,000 in supplies during the two days prior to the start of each school year. The shop has operated for those two days out of various county middle schools, and occasionally at some elementary schools. Hill and her fellow organizers recruited other helpers to staff the shop and they spent many weeks soliciting donations and stocking up on inventory prior to the distribution days.
Supporters of the shop got worried when Hill and her colleagues announced earlier this year that it was time for them to step away from managing the program. They women had hoped to pass the baton to a new generation of shop organizers, but unfortunately none surfaced.
“Clearly, everyone asked knew that these are big shoes to fill,” United Way Executive Director Kate McGowan wrote in a recent letter to the community announcing transition plans for the shop.
“The reality is that this program is too important to abandon,” she added.
With that in mind, Hill, McGowan and public school officials discussed ways of providing school supplies under a different model. They agreed on a year-round program through which grants will be provided to local schools that will be used to buy school supplies, including backpacks. Each individual school will identify, and privately contact, eligible families with the offer of free or reduced-price supplies that their children need for the academic year.
Schools will be asked only to confirm the funds were spent as intended, and to list the total number of students assisted each year, according to McGowan. And the new set-up will offer two extra advantages, according to McGowan: Participating students will have access to the supplies they need during the entire school year, as opposed to only on two days during the late summer; and participating families will be able to maintain more confidentiality. While shopping at the current Back-to-School Shop is by invitation only, participants sometimes cross paths during the course of the two days that distribution takes place, McGowan explained.
“This (system) is a little more respectful of people’s privacy,” McGowan said.
The United Way of Addison County has some funds on hand to apply to the Back-to-School Shop, but the organization will conduct a separate donation drive for the new program, according to McGowan. Eligible students are currently being covered under the soon-to-be former Back-to-School Shop model, with inventory that had been stored at Danforth Pewter, McGowan explained.
“The people who have led this program should be commended,” McGowan said of Hill, Haerle, Perkins and Morris. “They really helped out a lot of people.”
McGowan expects a quick transition to the new program. She expects schools will apply for funding that the United Way will disburse as soon as possible.
For more information about the program, contact the United Way at 388-7189.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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