ORLEANS – The new school year is just weeks away, and volunteers and staff with the Homeless Prevention Council are as busy as ever.
The nonprofit's Backpack to School program invites people to donate school supplies including folders, binders, pens, pencils, markers and calculators, all of which are bundled together in new customized backpacks for children and families in need. Backpacks, which also include a gift card for new shoes, are given out to students from preschool age to grade 12 from Harwich to Provincetown.
This year, the council anticipates providing more than 375 backpacks, which represents a 10 percent increase from last year. HPC CEO Hadley Luddy said that is the most backpacks the nonprofit has been charged with providing through the program to date. Taking point on the program this year is Margaret Dickson, a Brewster native and college student interning with HPC this summer.
"I started helping out and volunteering or HPC a while ago," said Dickson, who was introduced to the nonprofit through her mother. "Every year, I had a little bit more that I was doing, and this year was my big jump."
As chair of the Backpack to School program, Dickson oversees everything from placing orders for supplies to coordinating with the program's partnering businesses and agencies, working with volunteers and promoting the program on social media and other outlets.
"It kind of all comes to me, and we just proceed from there," she said.
The council administers a client survey every year, and Dickson said responses to the survey help guide expectations as to what the demand will be for school supplies. The council also consults with local schools to better understand what supplies are needed.
The council always anticipates some increase from the previous year, Dickson said, and this year is no exception.
"We've already surpassed last year's number [of backpacks], and we still have two weeks or so until the last day [for donations]," she said.
Luddy said the higher demand is reflective of the broader need across the region. As housing, food and other costs continue to rise, that often puts a strain on families' ability to provide things such as school supplies. The council estimates that the average cost per child of providing school supplies for the new school year is $125.
"To me, it's an example of the high cost of living and the way in which families are struggling," she said. "This may seem like such a small initiative, to give somebody a backpack. But the way in which we customize these and include things that are critically on the list of needs in the school system...it really does make a difference."
Backpack to School and the council's annual holiday gift drive, Adopt a Family, also help link up participating families with other services the council offers, such as rental assistance, that they otherwise might not be aware that they qualify for, Luddy said.
The council has set an Aug. 18 deadline for people to drop off supplies. In addition to the council's office at 8 Main St. in Orleans, supplies can also be dropped off at the Orleans Police Department, Nauset Marine, the Orleans Chamber of Commerce, Staples, the Orleans Stop and Shop on Route 6A, all Seamen's Bank branches and First Citizens' Federal Credit Union locations in Falmouth, Mashpee and Hyannis.
From there, volunteers are recruited to help prepare backpacks by filling them with supplies. The backpacks will then be picked up by students and families at the end of the month.
"Inside the office, we work so well as a meshed group," Dickson said. "But we're working on our volunteers right now. There's a great turnout for that."
And while the start of school is imminent, she said that there is still time for families in need of assistance to take part in the program.
"We would love families to reach out to us sooner rather than later," Luddy said. A full list of needed supplies can be found on the council website, hpccapecod.org. The website also allows people to make monetary donations to the council after the Aug. 18 deadline.
Anyone interested in volunteering in the Backpack to School program can call the council's office at 508-255-9667 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
It's been a busy summer for Dickson, who also interns as a photographer with the Orleans Firebirds. But she said she's happy to be involved in an effort that helps so many.
"I love it," she said. "I love doing this and helping out my community."