Donations help district provide supplies for students in need

Donated school supplies and uniforms for Osceola County students fill one portable office trailer and two massive shipping containers at school district headquarters. 

Together they contain more than a quarter of a million items from individuals, companies, community groups and other organizations who have been moved to help give local kids the most basic supplies they need for class. 

“Some of them don’t even have pencils or paper, and a lot come to school on the first day without backpacks,” said Leslie Campbell, director of special programs at the school district. 

The need isn’t surprising considering “because of the poverty level at the majority of our schools,” she said. 

“Our poverty rate is 84 percent; that four out of five students,” she said.  

Campbell and her team oversee incoming and outgoing donations to the district’s cache of supplies, an ever-changing mix that ranges from hygiene products, shoes and clothing to more traditional items such as calculators and notebooks. 

“We have large donations come in, and we never know what we’re going to get,” Campbell said. “One time we got $10,000 of new underwear that we then distributed to all the school nurses.”  

With school starting Aug. 12, it’s an especially busy time for families prepping for the new academic year. Some parents are waiting to shop during the annual back-to-school sales tax holiday, which starts Friday and ends Tuesday, Aug. 6. 

But many Osceola County parents can’t afford to buy supplies at all. 

Out of 68 schools in the district, 56 are considered Title 1, which means they have a large concentration of students from low-income households, at least 70 percent. Title 1 is a federal designation that comes with additional funds for academic coaches, supplies and other supplementary support services to help students succeed.

That’s why the district’s cache of school supplies is so important, Campbell said. 

“What we’re trying to do is eliminate barriers to a normal and adequate education,” she said. 

The district reaches out to every school to assess the need and determine how they can help, she said. 

“Some schools have other organizations helping them; others really need the help,” she said. 

Kissimmee Elementary, for example, was adopted by Office Depot, which is supplying all 1,100 students with a backpack and a $20 gift card. 

But that’s not the case at most schools, where many teachers pick up the slack. 

“It puts a lot of burden on teachers because they are going to take care of the kids if no one else does,” Campbell said. “So the more things we can get out, the less they will have to spend out of their own pockets. If we can’t funnel those supplies down to the students, the teachers are going to buy it.”

Roughly 7 percent of the district’s 69,500 students are considered homeless, although not all of them live on the street. The Families in Transition program, a statewide initiative, considers students living in motels, fish camps and other precarious housing situations to be homeless. 

The largest concentration of homeless students resides in the small budget motels along West U.S. Highway 192. 

The FIT population dropped at the end of the 2018-19 school year to 3,600. That’s down from 5,200 the year before when a large influx of children came into the district from Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. 

A grant allows the district to automatically outfit children in the transition program with backpacks, school supplies and uniforms, Campbell said.

Donations, however, are always welcome, she said. 

“Our doors are always open. We will take anything, anytime. We prefer new stuff and we don’t take used clothing. But we’ll even come and pick it up.”