Michelle Emahiser relied on her Facebook friends to accomplish a back-to-school mission this year – providing needy kids in the Genoa area with school supplies.
“There are a lot of people who can’t afford these things,” said the mother of two, who began a self-propelled mission three years ago called “Comet School Supply Drive.”
One story that pulled at her heartstrings: teachers pooled cash to gather supplies for an elementary boy who was living with his father in a car.
So she vowed to organize her own supply drive to help as many children as she could.
This year, 17 kids were better ready to face the new school year Aug. 21 because of Emahiser and her “sponsors.” The crew provides about $35 for the supplies or shops for the supplies themselves and return with a packed book bag.
“I did it on my own in the past but it was exhausting,” she said.
In previous years, Emahiser collected donations around town – cash and items – and then tried to match them with applications. This year, social media allowed her to extend her buying power.
All the while, she maintains the applicants’ confidentiality. Backpacks and supplies are dropped off at the schools and kids pick them up there, she said.
The first-come, first serve drive initially covered only elementary-age children but last year, she added middle school and then high schoolers for this school year.
The numbers have grown steadily as the shockwaves of the recession of 2008 still reverberate throughout Ottawa County despite economists’ claims of better days. Emahiser admits she hasn’t done much advertising for the drive for fear of not being able to handle the high volumes.
In Genoa alone, families of 467 students applied for free and reduced lunches during the 2011-12 school year, according to school district treasurer Bill Nye. That’s a 3 percent increase over the previous year. Students in the western Ottawa County school district also have to face higher school fees and pay-to-play policies invoked after rigid rounds of budget cuts, creating a financial struggle for some in the back to school routine.
Salvation Army Director Maureen Saponari agrees the need is out there.
Friday, her Port Clinton office distributed backpacks filled with supplies to nearly 140 students from the Genoa, Woodmore and Benton-Carroll-Salem school systems as part of the Tools for School program. This week, she’ll hand out supplies to Port Clinton and Danbury kids. In all, the count is up to about 550 throughout Ottawa County, Saponari said.
“It’s been kind of steady and one thing – we are seeing a lot of new names,” said Saponari, whose non-profit also sponsors annual coat drives and Christmas toy campaigns.
By mid-September, when the school supplies program ends, Saponari surmises the figure could easily hit the 595 mark tallied in 2011. “There are a lot of people who wait to the last minute. I try to serve as many of them as I can,” she said.
Families fill out applications that are available at all libraries in Ottawa County. “The libraries fax them, that way people who live in the west end don’t have to travel all the way here to turn in the applications,” she explained. After staff members review the applications, the kids are able to pick out their bags from the hundreds packed at the site during designated pick up dates.
“I write grants, do fundraisers, seek donations – anything I can to get the money to pay for these (supplies),” she said.
Saponari works with Wal-Marts across the region to collect the pallets of folders, notebooks, erasers and glue and other necessary supplies.
Emahiser hopes to expand her program in the future. She says she’ll talk with school officials about bringing home economics and business classes into the fold.
“I think it would be a way to teach them about giving back to the community,” Emahiser said.