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Dec 2003 / communities :: email this story to a friend

Improving St. Louis Schools, One Box of Crayons at a Time
By Marijean Jaggers

For school children there's nothing like a brand new box of twenty-four crayons, a sharpened set of pencils and a pack of multi-colored folders, just waiting to be filled with papers and projects. Tens of thousands of children throughout the St. Louis area did not know this pleasure when school began this fall, and in some cases, have little hope of having school supplies to call their own through the remainder of the year. It's hard to imagine for those of us who were privileged enough each year not only to have a complete set of school supplies but new shoes and a new backpack or lunchbox with the latest cartoon character on it.

Talk to any teacher who has had a child arrive the first day with nothing but the clothes on his back. Teachers already invest a small fortune of their own money in supplying their classrooms with tools for teaching. Teachers in the poorest of school districts find themselves reaching into their own pockets even more frequently for supplies as simple as pencils, glue and paper. National statistics report that teachers annually invest between $500 and $1000 of their own money to support their classrooms.

Filling a Need with a Free Store
KidSmart store In St. Louis, there is a new organization, KidSmart, designed to assist those teachers, and help fill the needs of students identified by the Missouri Department of Education in more than 100 elementary schools in St. Louis city and county, of whom 70% or more are living in poverty. These children are from families struggling to put food on the table; school supplies are a luxury they simply cannot afford. KidSmart opened the first "Free Store for Teachers" in Missouri in 2001; the store relies on donations from businesses throughout the area to stock their shelves with surplus office supplies and more traditional school supplies. "The children we serve do not lack ability or desire; they simply lack the resources," says Jennifer Miller, KidSmart president and founder. "Every child deserves to have the tools they need to learn and the opportunity to develop a strong educational foundation."

Teachers who are eligible can come to the KidSmart store in Bridgeton one day a month and are given a shopping allowance. They are handed an inventory sheet that details the "cost" of each item, and the quantity they are permitted to take. The quantities must be adjusted periodically to ensure that there's enough to go around.

The store itself is fantastic — a brightly decorated, inviting warehouse store (think Sam's for kids) with sections devoted to arts & crafts supplies, books, notebooks, markers and crayons, folders, paper and even backpacks. On shopping day, teachers with faces alight in relief and excitement wander the aisles. The possibilities created by a new package of construction paper, some odd leftover containers and a jar of glitter — in a teachers' mind — are endless. The KidSmart organization has only one caveat; they assign the teachers a homework assignment, inviting the children to write thank-you notes to the donor organizations. These cheerful crayoned and hand-painted thank-you notes and letters from students warm hearts and encourage donors to give again.

Creative Approaches to Homework
KidSmart staff members share stories from teachers, one about a child who reported going into the restroom at school before leaving in the afternoon to get paper towels to do homework, because there was no paper at home for writing assignments. Another young boy wrote a letter to KidSmart asking for his own notebook. He only wanted something that was his alone and did not have to be shared. Teachers regularly report that their students meet them at their car the morning after they shop at KidSmart, excited to see the latest supplies they will have in their classrooms.

St. Louis' KidSmart founder Jennifer Miller, a former teacher who had seen the need firsthand, developed the free store model based on similar efforts taking place in more than 25 other cities around the country. The first, Crayons to Computers, is in Cincinnati, Ohio, now in its eighth year of operation. The St. Louis organization opened in 2001, and has distributed well over $350,000 worth of supplies to more than 18,000 area students in need. This has been accomplished through 425 teacher-shoppers who have made some 1600 visits to the free store. KidSmart credits in large part the 1200 volunteers who have donated in excess of 22,000 hours of their time

KidSmart has two full-time salaried staff and six full-time volunteer staff. The organization relies on programs like AmeriCorps to provide professionals for development, public relations, volunteer coordination, operations and corporate donor relations. Their board includes St. Louis notables Tyler P. Alcorn, Ronnie Brockman, Lt. Governor Joe Maxwell, Steve Murphy, Thomas R. Collins, Peggy E. Garrett and Kimberly K. McCurdy, to name just a few.

Volunteers Needed!
In order to keep up with the ongoing demand, KidSmart relies on not only financial and surplus product donations, but also volunteers. People with time to give can be involved in stocking shelves, sorting donated items and working the checkout lanes for shopping teachers. It's a great way to give back to the community, and seniors or retired teachers are frequent volunteers. Jennifer Miller says that there are three main components to the organization reaching its goals: "Tens of thousands of children in need are still attending school every day without the most basic supplies necessary for learning. In order to reach our goals we need products, volunteers, and financial support. These parts are each dependent upon the other, and are equally important in determining our success."

We know that one key to bringing back the city of St. Louis is to improve the schools. It's not difficult to conclude that students who have the proper tools for learning, and a sufficient supply, do better in school. Schools that get better marks gain greater funding, and the chain continues, improving life in St. Louis for many. KidSmart has found a positive way to tap into this supply chain, contributing on a very basic level in a simple way, making St. Louis a better place to live, work and go to school.

This winter, like many non-profits, the organization is hoping the heater keeps working, and that the dock door holds out. They could also use hundreds of two-pocket folders, packets of loose-leaf paper, pencils and markers, as these items seem to run low the quickest. Besides donations of supplies and financial contributions, they would welcome more volunteers to keep everything neat, tidy and organized, ready for the teachers to come on shopping day.

Marijean Jaggers is a freelance writer and the Communications Manager for Crown Optical. Crown Optical recently held a school-supply drive, called Project A B See, to help support KidSmart.

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