Aug 5, 2011

What really happens before a school supply giveaway

I have always been inspired by those who undertake giveaway events like school supplies, Christmas gifts, coats, shoes, and of course, food. I believe it is putting into practice the idea of "As we do to the least of them, we also do to Him."

If you have ever helped serve in a soup kitchen, food pantry or a one-day giveaway activity, you've  felt the adrenaline rush of greeting visitors, helping them select their item(s) and the incredible good feeling from knowing you've helped make someone's life just a tiny bit easier.

It is more blessed to give than receive.  If you don't think so, just hand a sack of new school supplies to a kid and watch him peer inside.  Watch his eyes light up when he realizes it's all there, and it's all new, and it's all his.

If you haven't done any of these things, you really, really should. But be forewarned it can be addictive, contagious and infectious. You'll get hooked and you'll be pressuring your friends to try it too.

Throughout the year, our congregation helps people in our community who need food, clothing and shelter. And for the third year in a row, last Saturday we provided free school supplies to local school children, so they are all set to head back to school. The first year we helped 150 children; the next year it was 225. This year, we helped over 350 children.

But this isn't about the giveaway day itself.  Have you ever wonder what happens before the big day?

Here's a peek behind the scenes along with my heartfelt thanks to all who do so much to make it look so effortless on the big day.  For 5 or 6 weeks before we open our doors and give it all away, we have dozens of "worker bees" out scouting the sales and buying supplies, others counting and organizing the incoming supplies repeatedly for several weeks. Aside from the thrill of bargain hunting, it is work, plain and simple. But these men and women love this project, and they undertake the necessary tasks willingly and cheerfully.  As one of the coordinators, I am indebted to them - we could not do what we do without all of them.

In the final few days, that beehive becomes a swarm of activity, with people doing a final count of every item, budgeting our donations to get any fill-in items, then labeling, packing and preparing everything for a smooth giveaway event.

In addition to the giveaway, we also do something a little unusual.  At the same time we are taking in school supplies, we stuff apple baskets with "wish list" items requested by our own schoolteachers.  Our "Apples for Teachers" program is also in its third year.  We have around a dozen public and private school teachers from kindergarten to high school, who are saddling up and heading back to their classrooms, prepared to teach, counsel, mentor and lead by example.

So we ask them to let us honor them by providing supplies they purchase out of pocket. In early July we put each requested item on a paper apple and hang it on a bulletin board and stand back. The apples literally FLY off the board as members latch on to the opportunity to do a little something for these men and women.

Our giveaway weekend wraps up with a Sunday evening ice cream social and presentation of these overflowing baskets to each teacher, along with prayers and best wishes for a safe and productive school year.

It doesn't seem like it can be time to be undertaking all these activities again, but the calendar says otherwise.

And after the event is over, it still ain't over.  Many stores continue to offer specials on supplies, and in a few weeks, those same retailers will mark down their overstocked items to almost nothing just to get it out the door.  We have some indefatigable shoppers who scavenge those markdown racks week after week, continuing to buy notebooks and folders and rulers and crayons to have a starter pile for the following year.  They make veteran post-holiday shoppers look like bush-leaguers when it comes to bargain hunting, and their efforts have made it possible for us to expand and grow our giveaway every year and help more children.  God bless them, every one.

I hope that peek into the pre-giveaway activities will inspire you to get involved with something in your area.  Or do as I did three years ago, and send out an innocent email to a few friends, asking them, "What if we tried to help some schoolkids this year?"  and see where it leads you.  It can be a very rewarding journey!

Happy volunteering,

P.S. If the apple basket idea is triggering some plans in your mind, I can heartily recommend Shipley Baskets for genuine bushel baskets. They are a Tennessee company with terrific products and superb customer service. And no, they had no idea I was going to say something kind about them, and they didn't offer me anything in return for an endorsement.