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Kids R First Serving Students

Organization providing school supplies honored as Best of Reston.

First in a series of profiles of those honored as The Best of Reston.

When Susan Ungerer decided to start an organization to help needy children acquire school supplies, she did not know what to name it. Then she received a phone call from Rio De Janeiro, where her husband, David, was on a business trip. "How about Kids R First," he said.

David Ungerer's friend, Bill Fuller, was in the taxi with him and suggested the name. Ungerer bought it. The name was appropriate for her organization's mission and goals. "Kids really are first," said Ungerer, "they are the future, and it is not their fault they are living in that situation."

That situation is one in which their parents are not able to provide basic school supplies for them. Pencils, binders, folders, notebooks and other basic school supplies are not purchasing priorities in homes that can barely afford to pay the electricity and water bills.

While a teacher, Ungerer bought supplies for her students and kept them in a classroom closet. When she would notice a student who did not have proper supplies, she opened the closet for him or her.

Not having the proper supplies, said Ungerer, makes the students fall behind in their academics. She said Fairfax County used to have a program to provide almost all of the supplies for the students, but as the county turned toward improving schools technologically, and started equipping them with computers, the program fell apart as far as school supplies went.

After 23 years in a classroom, Ungerer retired in 1993, and began volunteering with the Herndon-Reston FISH (Friendly Instant Sympathetic Help), a volunteer organization dedicated to helping people deal with emergencies and short-term needs. In 1995, with a small amount of money from FISH, Ungerer decided to help two schools in Reston and two in Herndon, providing 450 students on free or reduced-priced lunches with school supplies. The response was so positive that next year she helped eight schools and 1,200 children gather school supplies. Each year the demand grew, and Ungerer decided to invite other retired teachers to join her effort, and in 1998, Kids R First was started.

"NEEDS DON'T CHANGE," said Ungerer, "they become greater." As needs and demand grew, so did Kids R First. They moved on from serving students in elementary schools, to serving students in middle and high schools. Some high-school programs include free SAT tutorial courses, college application fees and other fees associated with academic or career opportunities after high school for students who are on free or reduced-priced lunches. For its work, Kids R First was recognized as one of the seven Best of Reston honorees, for "providing from the heart."

"Kids R First is a group of quality folks who really work at helping out the kids," said Frank Bensinger, the principal at Forest Edge Elementary School in Reston. He said the group works hard to gather donations to help the needy children, they are not given huge donations to work with. Bensinger wrote a letter of recommendation to nominate Kids R First for the Best of Reston Award. He said 55 percent of the school's community students, there is also a gifted and talented program at Forest Edge, are students on free or reduced-priced lunches. The parents of those students can focus their limited incomes on something other than school supplies, thanks to the efforts of Kids R First.

WHEN IT BEGAN IN 1998, Kids R First served 3,000 students in grades kindergarten-eighth. In the 2004-2005 school year, the organization helped 11,000 students in grades kindergarten-12, 2,418 of them live in Reston, and 2,239 in Herndon. Until now, Kids R First donated supplies to schools in Fairfax County and couple of schools in Loudoun County. The organization is planning to open a new chapter in Prince George's County, Md. Ungerer is excited about the new chapter because it is a start of an expansion she hopes will capture all of the metro area, all of Virginia, and finally the nation.

Jacqueline Beale, a senior business analyst with Fannie Mae, is to become the founding president of the Kids R First Maryland chapter. Beale saw a WUSA special on Kids R First, and decided to approach Ungerer about starting the chapter. Beale said she was ecstatic about her involvement with the organization, and added her passion was helping out children. "If I can get a smile on one student," said Beale, "then it is worth it."

The plan, said Beale, is to be operable by the beginning of the school year in September. She is hoping to help students in at least five schools at that point and then expand over the years in the way Kids R First here has. She added many people have come forward to offer their time and services for the organization.

As far as the Best of Reston award is concerned, Beale said, "It reinforces to me I've chosen the right organization to be associated with."

FUNDING FOR Kids R First comes mostly from the annual golf tournament the organization hosts, raising about 50 percent of the organization's annual budget. Around 30 percent of the available money comes from smaller gift donors and privately owned stores. About 20 percent of the money donated to the organization comes from corporations. Ungerer said she hoped the award will show the corporate world that Kids R First is a legitimate organization. "We are thrilled because we are hoping it will add some credibility, and that people will want to join our efforts," said Ungerer.

This year's golf tournament will take place June 27. Kids R First is planning to hold a mini tournament for children and is looking for a professional golf player to come out and give some golf lessons as well.

In order to raise money, the organization often works on special projects. Its next project is a gift wrap at Appalachian Spring at Reston Town Center. The store invited Kids R First to hold the gift wrap at the store from Friday, Feb. 11 to Monday, Feb. 14, offering the organization wrapping paper and space. Liz Gardner, a store manager, said she was impressed with the organization from the start. As far as the Best of Reston recognition goes, Gardner said it was marvelous Kids R First were honored. "It is a wonderful organization, and they deserved it," she said.