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Kids R First Keeps True to its Name

After retiring from Fairfax County Public Schools six years ago, Audrey Van Vliet, a former elementary school teacher, had been content reading novels, writing poetry and working on her memoirs. As happy as she was, there was still something missing. "I needed to get back to helping kids," she said. "But I had no idea what I was getting myself into."

So when a friend of hers, Susan Ungerer, another former Fairfax County teacher, approached her last year about joining her non-profit board. Van Vliet agreed. In 1998, Ungerer founded Kids R First, a program that provides school supplies to students whose families cannot afford them.

Van Vliet, who used to teach third and fourth grade at Forest Edge Elementary School, saw many students come to school unprepared because their families simply couldn't afford the materials. "It's so important for these kids to be ready on day one," Van Vliet said, taking a break from sorting materials. "It would just break my heart to see some of those kids."

Tired of watching the embarrassment and "educational setback" that students faced when they arrived on the first day of school without the necessary supplies, Ungerer, a former Terraset Elementary School teacher, began soliciting donations from local stores. Six years later, more than 90,000 units of supplies are filling the cafeteria of Langston Hughes Middle School to fill the nearly 10,000 qualified orders from 58 county schools. This year, the organization will provide supplies to more than 9,000 school age children in Reston, Herndon, Sterling, Ashburn, Chantilly and Centreville. Growing each year, Kids R First will help about 1,000 more students in six more schools than it did last year.

Students at the participating schools who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches automatically receive their school supplies from Ungerer's group. Among other things, the group will hand out 11,639 folders, 2,268 pairs of "pointed" scissors and more than 6,000 glue sticks.

Deborah Jackson, principal at Langston Hughes, knows how important organizations like Kids R First are to the community. More than a quarter of Jackson's students receive supplies from the organization. "Obviously, I think the world of them," she said. "Why else would I give up my cafeteria for two weeks?"

SHORTLY BEFORE the first day of school last year, Ginger Seeley was shopping for school supplies at Target. Seeley, a former counselor at Chantilly High School, had seen first hand the anguish of students who couldn't afford supplies. As fate would have it, Ungerer was at the same retailer that day when she ran into Seeley, who was buying supplies for her six grandchildren. "Sure, I was buying for six, but she was buying for 6,000," she said. "How could I say no?"

Now Seeley helps oversee the two-week operation from the Langston Hughes cafeteria. Last Tuesday, Seeley arrived at Wal-Mart to pick-up a large Kids R First shipment at 8:30 a.m. She didn't leave until 6:30 p.m., once the second truck had been filled.

While she was loading the vehicle, a man approached Seeley to inquire about the organization. The man, whom Seeley described as an older man, proceeded to help her load two shopping carts full of merchandise into the truck. Before leaving, the man leaned over to Seeley and gave her $30 from his wallet. "I could tell $30 was a lot for him, but he liked what we were doing so much that he felt compelled to donate," she said. "I'll never forget, he leaned into me and said, 'God bless you, I was once one of those kids.' It had been a really long day, until then."

Seeley has also seen the faces of students who were the recipients of Kids R First. While delivering supplies to a local high school recently, one of the students broke down in tears because she was so happy to have all of the supplies, Van Vliet said.

STUDENT VOLUNTEERS also have a hand in Kids R First's charitable organization. For two years, Ashley Heck, 13, has been spending two weeks of her summer vacation loading boxes full of school materials. "I thought it was fun last year and I wanted to do it again," Heck said. "I like that it helps out other people."

Rachel Onufrychuck, 13, said she didn't realize how many "needy people there were in this area."

The donations are based on each school's individual requirements. Each school determines the items each student will need to compete on the first day and then the school turns over its wish list to the nonprofit group. The county estimates that about one-fifth of its 155,000 students qualify for free and reduced lunches.

As the first day of school approaches, parents and children around the county are beginning to go down the list of required supplies need for the first day. Some of the these lists can cost as much as $50 for elementary students and more than $200 for high school students, Van Vliet said. Many of the families affected have more than one student in school, so the price of supplies can be several hundred dollars, she added.

By the end of September, Kids R First hopes to have raised $40,000 in tax-deductible donations. The organization says that 99 percent of its budget goes direct to programs to help the students. "We can only do so much. We desperately need money," Seeley said. "We can't pay for everything in this room right now."