Monterey County Superintendent of Schools Deneen Guss (right) joins with volunteers to help assemble thousands of backpacks with school supplies as part of the annual Stuff the Bus program. (Contributed Photo)

MONTEREY COUNTY — Volunteers from Monterey County Office of Education (MCOE) and United Way Monterey County teamed up to finish packing 4,500 backpacks with school supplies as part of the annual Stuff the Bus program, which provides basic supplies to students in need throughout the county.

The final round of backpack-filling took place at the MCOE office in Salinas, after initial rounds in both King City and Gonzales earlier this summer.

“This gives the students a nice place to start,” said Donna Smith, program coordinator.

Smith explained the backpacks are created with information from school districts and filled with supplies depending on the grade level of students in need, which schools can then customize with additional supplies if they have particular required items not already covered.

“New notebooks, pens, pencils and binders are all basic necessities for success in the classroom, but for more than 10,000 local students who are experiencing homelessness, these essentials are out of reach,” said Katy Castagna, president and CEO of United Way Monterey County. “The Stuff the Bus program fulfills a critical role in students’ academic success and eases the financial burden on their families. We are grateful for our community’s contributions towards this initiative.”

Students are determined by their home environment status, whether their family is homeless or going through other living situations that would make education more difficult.

Liaisons take many of the backpacks to local schools, while some remain at the MCOE office for later distributions, such as students in need who move to the county mid-year. Among the backpacks, an estimated 20% go to schools in South Monterey County.

Volunteers from Monterey County Office of Education and United Way Monterey County partner to finish packing 4,500 backpacks with school supplies. (Contributed Photo)

Though 4,500 backpacks are created based on needs assessments, the total number of students classified in Monterey County as homeless totals 10,000 of the estimated 77,000 students in the county.

According to Lynda Patrick, a vice president with United Way, that classification could include distressed living situations, such as a family in a garage or a house with multiple families, and does not literally mean 10,000 students are on the streets. With families cramped in houses or motel rooms, the environment makes learning difficult when students are home.

“I can’t imagine two or three families with two or three kids all sharing a house, and one room for a family,” Patrick said. “Even though they’re technically not without a roof over their heads, that’s certainly not a stable or fixed environment that we would recommend would be optimal for learning.”

Complicating things, the number of students in need has gone up since the start of the program in Monterey County in 2010. The number of homeless students has increased by 1,000 since last year, Patrick noted.

“We launched this program in 2010 in response to the growing number of homeless students and at that point, 11 years ago, we identified 2,000 students,” she said. “Now it’s up to 10,000. We’ve grown the program and tried to keep pace with the need. Our first year we packed 500 backpacks.”

The increase in backpacks comes with a cost. Patrick said the total price tag for supplies this year was $60,000, up from an estimated $55,000 last year. The program relies on sponsors, especially larger corporate sponsors, to meet those funding levels.

A total of 88 volunteers worked over the course of six days to assemble the last wave of backpacks at the MCOE office.

For more information about Stuff the Bus or for sponsorship opportunities, contact Patrick at 831-372-8026, ext. 112.

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Sean Roney is a freelance reporter for King City Rustler and Salinas Valley Tribune, a unified publication of Greenfield News, Soledad Bee and Gonzales Tribune. He covers general news for the Salinas Valley communities in South Monterey County.


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