When it comes to helping low-income kids at back-to-school time, we need to keep that mindset all year long

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This morning I was reading through one of my favorite sections of the Chicago Tribune, the "Health and Family" feature.  In it, I discovered a report highlighting the challenges faced by economically-disadvantaged students and how we can help them get ready for back-to-school.

The article appears at a most opportune time.  With just a few weeks until CPS kids return to the classroom, many low-income families are struggling to purchase all the items on those school supply lists, which seem to get longer every year.  Some families can't even begin to provide the basics of what their kids need.

With most of our attention focused on school funding uncertainties and political rivalries, thinking of those in need can fall by the wayside.

But it's still a priority for many, like Cradles to Crayons, an organization that helps thousands of low-income and homeless kids, ages 0-12.  The group collects school supplies, clothing, hygiene products, and other items.  Those donations are packaged by volunteers at their warehouse, the Giving Factory. (I love that name).  Clothing can be gently used, with the exception of three articles-- underwear, socks, and PJs-- which must be brand-new.  It's all about giving kids their dignity, along with the other tools they need to succeed in school.

Hygiene products are an oft-overlooked need, but having access to them can boost kids' school attendance and self-respect.  Among other items, the organization helps provide feminine products for girls who can't afford them.

Cradles to Crayons has over 30 drop-off stations throughout the Chicago area, and you can sign up for a shift at the Giving Factory, too.

Last Thursday, a large crowd of volunteers turned out for the organization's annual Backpack-a-Thon, loading up over 17,000 backpacks with new school supplies.  The best part:  A handwritten note with an encouraging message was included in each "care package."  Teachers report that kids cherish those little tokens of support.  Just a reminder to us that a really small gesture can go a really long way.

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Photo credit:  Volunteers package school supplies at the annual Backpack-a-Thon coordinated by Cradles to Crayons- (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune photos

I've included a link to their website (above) because I can't do them justice in one short blog post, so I highly encourage you to read more about them and consider donating a few items, or your time.

While back-to-school season prompts many of us to think of those less fortunate and do what we can to help, I've always wondered how long those beginning-of-the-school year donations really last.  Certain items, like backpacks, should be expected to hold up throughout the school year.

Others though, can be used up quickly.  Notebook paper,  pencils,  crayons, glue.  Supplies of these items need to be kept constant.

Even school uniforms can give out before the year draws to a close.  If a child has a midyear growth spurt, subjects those school outfits to a considerable amount of wear and tear, or only has seasonal clothing, it won't be enough to see them through until June.  How many kids have we seen in short sleeves on a cold January day?  Sure, the school is heated, but even indoors, sometimes we like to wear something warm, especially if the building is drafty.  Compounding the problem is that many low-income kids lack warm coats when cold weather comes.  Thankfully, we have coat drives to cover that need.

I've always wondered if we collect enough at the beginning of the year to see kids through until June.  If not, how do we meet the need?  Most of us probably don't think about kids needing supplies once the school year starts.  Unless you're a teacher.  Most who have taught in a low-income school have had to pay for supplies or classroom materials with their own money.

And school supplies aren't just limited to pencils and paper.  As they progress through the grades, students are required to bring increasing numbers of items to class.  According to the supply list on CPS' website, calculators are a classroom staple beginning in seventh grade.  By the time kids reach high school, the type of calculators used for higher-level math classes are the sophisticated scientific variety.  How are those provided for homeless and low-income students?  If they're furnished with school- issued calculators that can only be used in the classroom, how do they do their homework?

Certainly, families should be responsible for providing what they can, and kids who are old enough to earn their own money can help with the costs, but some purchases are going to be out-of-reach for many.

Cradles to Crayons does accept donations year round, so consider dropping off a few packs of pencils, paper, clothing and hygiene products during times when classes are well underway, not just in the weeks before CPS opens its doors in September.

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