As summer draws to a close, it seems every store across Fairfax County is advertising back-to-school sales. For some needy families, however, buying backpacks, notebooks, pencils and crayons can be an expensive hurdle to clear each fall.
Members of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, in addition to eight Springfield-area churches and some civic-minded doctors and nurses, are making sure those children are returning to school well-prepared.
"We do this kind of stuff all the time," said Willie F. Bailey, a member of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, overseeing a room full of anxious and eager to help volunteers at Greenspring Retirement Home on Monday, Aug. 20. More than 50 adults had signed up to help stuff over 350 new backpacks with school supplies, complete with notebooks, crayons, pencils, glue sticks and scissors.
Principals, teachers and more volunteers will pick up the backpacks on Friday, Sept. 7, just after school starts, in order to get the supplies to the children who need it most, Bailey said.
Items were donated by a number of groups, including Progressive Firefighters of Fairfax County, Fairfax County Professional Firefighters and Paramedics, International Association of Firefighters Local 2068 and Bearing Point, Inc., said Capt. George Hallingsworth. His fire marshal department has worked closely with the Resident Council at Greenspring, made up of residents who initially contacted the fire department about safety concerns on the campus. Residents at Greenspring are especially fond of the firefighters from Station 22, located at the intersection of Backlick Road and the Franconia Springfield Parkway, who answer calls there daily, Hallingsworth said.
"The residents here were eager to help us. We really should encourage the county to look to retirement homes more often for volunteers because these residents were ready to go and do more work," he said.
Elaine Sorensen, chair of the Resident Council, said she had to take down the volunteer sign-up sheets after 75 people signed up to help.
"The firefighters are always here, always with a smile and always willing to help," she said. Plus, stuffing the backpacks will help needy children get off on the right foot for the new school year.
TAKING A BREAK between stacks of backpacks, Hazel Bonner, a former tax preparer, said she likes to help when given the chance.
"This is all very worthwhile," she said. "We all want to give back to the community that's been so good to us. This is probably the most active group you'll find."
Joe Struder, another volunteer, said he is more than happy to help the firefighters in any way possible.
"It's very joyful to help," he said, folding a box in which the backpacks will be stored until they are picked up in a few weeks.
Greenspring General Services manager Tom Channon said many of the residents are retired teachers, so packing school supplies is a way to stay in touch with the educational process.
"You can tell from the response that the residents love to help," Channon said. "Every time there's a volunteer activity of any kind, we're swamped with people."
It's also a way to keep the residents involved in their community. Many of them were afraid of being pushed aside or removed from society when they moved into Greenspring, and the numerous outreach programs help take those concerns away.
In all, more than 450 backpacks will be distributed to children across the county courtesy of the fire department, Bailey said.
ON SATURDAY, Aug. 18, 97 children in Springfield received their own backpacks, along with a physical exam and, if needed, vaccinations in order to start school healthy on Sept. 4.
A group of churches came together seven years ago to collect school supplies for needy children, and soon they had recruited pediatricians and nurses to administer physical exams, said Cynthia Barr, a nurse for more than 30 years who has helped organize the health clinic in Springfield. The event was so successful, two more locations, one in Falls Church and one in the Mount Vernon District, now offer the services as well.
"We were originally brought together through the Greater Springfield Communities of Faith in response to some issues in our community," Barr said. Now, more than 300 children across the county are helped by the clinic, scheduled for one Saturday afternoon in August each year.
Many of the nurses and doctors who administer the physicals and vaccinations are volunteers from the pediatrics unit of Inova Fairfax Hospital, she said.
Each year, the number of children who need the vaccinations but do not have health insurance continues to rise, Barr said, which leads to increased demand for programs like this one. In addition to a physical and their booster shots, the children receive a backpack with supplies and their parents receive information on health insurance for low-income families.
"The purpose of this program isn't just to get the kids checked out and ready for school, but to try to hook them up with an insurance home so they don't run to the emergency room instead of visiting a regular doctor," Barr said.
The school supplies were provided by individual donors at seven Springfield churches, including St. Christopher's, St. Mark's, St. Bernadette, Prince of Peace, Kirkwood Presbyterian, Messiah United Methodist, Westwood Baptist and First Baptist Church of Springfield, said Lynn Knox, school supply drive coordinator. People were invited to purchase items from a generic list of supplies, compiled from local schools, or donate money.
"We spend one afternoon and evening shopping and stuffing backpacks, so all the children who get an exam receive their supplies," Knox said. Any extra supplies are donated to ECHO [Ecumenical Council Helping Others], Crestwood, Lynbrook and Garfield elementary schools or the Springfield-Franconia Family Resource Center, so nothing goes to waste.
The smiles on the children's faces as they receive their backpack are as bright as those on their parents' faces, knowing their child has been examined by a doctor and is ready to start school, said Don Knox, Lynn Knox's husband and a retired pediatrician. Often, potentially serious illnesses are noticed in time to be treated before school starts.
"The best thing is, we're keeping the children happier and healthier," Lynn Knox said. "That's good for the parents too, because if you have a child that's sick, you hurt with them."