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Dickinson area projects help provide school supplies for those in need

In the past few weeks, pencils, twistable crayons, scientific calculators and school supplies alike filled the aisles of shopping stores. With many schools in the southwest North Dakota area starting next week, families are expected to send their...

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Peggy O'Brien began the Caring Bus project eight years ago and personally fills the backpacks with all of the supplies each child needs. Press Photo by Mary Shown

In the past few weeks, pencils, twistable crayons, scientific calculators and school supplies alike filled the aisles of shopping stores.

With many schools in the southwest North Dakota area starting next week, families are expected to send their children ready for the new year with new supplies. But for many families, the extra expense can be a burden.

Programs like Consolidated's Back to School drive and Prairie Hills Mall's Caring Bus project allows families who struggle to send their kids to school with supplies. Each program is donation based, but there is variation on how they each get the supplies to the kids.

"The supply list is larger for grade schools, they need crayons and markers," Rhonda Fitterer, Consolidated marketing manager said. "When you get into junior high and high school, it's pens, notebooks, protractors, the list isn't quite as expensive."

Fitterer heads the telephone and cable cooperative's Back to School drive which has become a large part of the community since it began more than 15 years ago and serves all grades ranging from pre-K to high school.

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Citizens in the area donate and drop off any school supplies at Consolidated's main office in Dickinson and then a small group of program partner Gate City Bank and Consolidated employees distribute the supplies to the schools.

"We serve all of southwest North Dakota, so we send school supplies to schools such as South Heart, Richardton, New England, Hettinger, Scranton, as well as the Dickinson schools," she said. "We take the box to the school and we leave it up to the administration and teachers to, where they see a need to give them to the children, who are in need of those supplies."

Another program available specifically to Stark County residents is the Caring Bus project.

Mall manager Peggy O'Brien began the project after finding bus cutouts in the mall's supply closet eight years ago.

"I had worked for Hope Christian Academy for many years in the office and, just through thoughts and running ideas through my head, I thought, you know this would be really great to do something with these buses and call them caring buses," she said, "and it took off from there."

O'Brien partners with Stark County Social Services, which hands out applications to families in need.

The families are asked to list the child's name, gender, age, grade and a full list of the supplies they are in need off. O'Brien then takes these applications, assigns the child with a code instead of their name so they may remain anonymous, and lists the rest of the information on a clipboard tag that is then placed on the bus display in the mall. The public was encouraged to pick a clipboard and fill a backpack with what that specific child needs.

"I really like working with Stark County Social Services because they have a pulse on where the needs are at and what's going on, and they're so nice to work with, so we partner very well," O'Brien said.

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Both Fitterer and O'Brien said the need for assistance has risen in comparison to previous years.

O'Brien estimated that requests have increased nearly 30 percent from 2015, while Fitterer worries about the ability of filling what is needed.

"The population of Dickinson has gone down, but the need has not gone down," Fitterer said. "I think maybe with unemployment, there is a greater need than ever. Our donations are down, so it will be hard stretched to get everyone covered this fall."

O'Brien said it would be difficult to fill her requests without the help of companies like MGM Rural Sanitation, which donated 68 of the 94 backpack requests.

"I had some individuals that have come in and helped and then we've had individuals just here in the mall that knew we were short of supplies and just on their own, went out and bought bags of supplies," she said. "I'm very impressed with the generosity of the people in our community."

Consolidated also accepts cash donations, to which they themselves go to stores like Wal-Mart, look at the supply lists provided, and purchase from there.

The Back to School drive is still ongoing and donations will be accepted until Monday. The Caring Bus project concludes this weekend with families picking up their supplies in a store at the mall next to Herberger's.

"It is labor intensive but everyone of us that works on this project, we want everyone of those kids to walk into school on that first day and be on the same level as all of their other classmates," O'Brien said. "Walking in and not having a backpack or their supplies, we want them to walk in and be proud, so it's worth the extra effort. It's so much fun to see the big smiling faces of the kids as you hand them a backpack full of everything they need."

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Related Topics: STARK COUNTY
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