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Published August 09 2013

VIDEO: Distribution of 4,500 backpacks full of school supplies begins today at Fargodome

FARGO – One parent described it as “a weight lifted just a bit,” knowing his son would have the proper materials to help him learn and grow in his education.

“He won’t have the distraction or worry every day about whether or not he will have a pencil to use or a backpack to put his things in, unlike his older sister who had to carry her supplies in a plastic bag because we didn’t have money for a backpack,” the parent wrote. “We are grateful for your help!”

Another parent, a single father and military veteran, wrote that the United Way of Cass Clay’s School Supply Drive would provide his children with all of the essentials they needed for school.

“I am so thankful that there are those willing to help in our time of need,” he wrote last year.

This year, United Way met its goal of equipping 4,500 students with backpacks full of school supplies, Marketing Director Kristina Hein said.

But how does United Way decide who receives the supplies?

“It really is self-reported need,” Hein said.

The program is open to students in kindergarten through 12th grade in Cass and Clay counties.

The student’s parent or guardian must complete a registration form to be eligible for the free supplies. The form has places for them to list their address and contact information; the student’s name, grade, school, sex and age; and the number of family members in the household.

The form also has boxes for parents to check to indicate their income level and whether their children receive free or reduced-price school lunches. Hein said those factors are used only for statistical purposes and not to determine whether a child receives supplies.

“The reason we do that is a lot of people come to us and say, ‘You know, I’ve never had help before, but this year, you know, we had an accident in our home, I lost my job, and I might not qualify,’ ” she said.

Based on last year’s completed forms, United Way found that roughly 83 percent of the students who received supplies were enrolled in the federal lunch program. Nearly 1,050 registrants checked the box indicating their income level was below $5,000, while 858 indicated an income level of $15,000 to $24,999.

“So we know we are impacting a population that is in need, truly in need,” Hein said.

A comment section on the form asks the parent or guardian why the school supply drive is important to them and their family and how it impacts them and their children.

“The School Supply Drive is important to our family because without it we would not be able to send our kids to school with the things they need,” a parent wrote in 2009. “When I found out about the drive, it was like a gift. Now my children won’t feel inferior to the rest of their classmates. Thank you!”

United Way works with a network of local nonprofit organizations to identify families in need and encourage them to complete the registration form and show up at the Fargodome on the school supply distribution days, Hein said. This year’s distribution times are 8 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday and 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at the dome.

A team of volunteers working under the direction of United Way staff reviews the registration forms, making sure all parts of the form are completed. Parents and guardians also must show a form of ID for each child to prove that he or she attends the school listed on the form.

Hein said there’s been “a significant amount” of growth in need for the program. About 3,800 students received backpacks five years ago, compared with 4,599 last year. Population growth, the rising costs of school supplies and more families having difficulty making ends meet have all contributed to the increase, she said.

This year’s goal of equipping 4,500 students with backpacks is based on half of the roughly 9,000 students in Cass and Clay counties who are on the free and reduced-price lunch program, Hein said.

West Fargo’s Cheney Middle School had the most students benefit from the program last year among the 53 schools and community organizations impacted, with 212 students receiving backpacks. Principal Donald Lennon attributed that figure to West Fargo’s booming population.

Lennon said the program is “very important” for students of middle school age.

“It’s one of those things that students, when they show up here on the first day, they can rely on having those items,” he said. “You’re not singled out. It does help out in that transition for the students.”

The donation deadline for the supply drive was last Friday to give volunteers time to fill the backpacks before the distribution days, but Hein said donations will still be accepted through Monday.

“We still do have needs,” she said.