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Giving groups unite to defray school costs

The Kiwanis Club presented $500 this month to help buy items for a school-supply event held in conjunction with the Aug. 11 Tuesday Banquet at St. Bridget Catholic Church. Front row left to right: Art Smith, Susie Swensen, Laura Thompson, Joleen Larson, Brenda Gaulke, Bob Gustafson and Shauna Knott. Back row left to right: Brad Schaffer, Kevin Flynn and Fred Dietze. Submitted photo

Each year as August approaches, many minds turn to the task of preparing kids for a new school year. The ritual includes clothes and a literal list of items that children are expected to bring on the first day.

Around the same time, many different charitable-minded groups and people do all sorts of things to make sure kids have what they need.

School-supply coordinator Bob Gustafson, a retired business teacher who taught at the high school for 36 years, took over coordinating the Tuesday Banquet school-supply event three years ago.

He said, "We're trying to serve the people who really need it the best we can with a unified effort."

He refers to the 5-6 p.m. Aug. 11 Tuesday Banquet -- a free hot meal, open to the community and held the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month at St. Bridget Catholic Church.

Volunteers gather and buy school supplies to give to families who can't afford them. Gustafson said the Tuesday Banquet group keeps all the local school-supply lists handy, so families don't have to worry about bringing them along.

"When they (shoppers) come in," he said, "they get a number and then we draw numbers out of a hat."

Kids come up a few at a time as their numbers are called.

Gustafson said the popular Tuesday Banquet provides a nice venue for distributing the supplies that many work to collect. He said several area churches each provide different services: First Congregational, United Methodist, Hope Lutheran, Luther Memorial, Ezekiel Lutheran, Unitarian Universalist Society and St. Bridget.

Gustafson said the Salvation Army's Tools for School program, coordinated by Ed Paulson, places donation bins in ShopKo plus helps the Tuesday Banquet volunteers fill any gaps. Gustafson said the overall group is also coordinating with Dick's Fresh Market and EconoFoods to have school-supply drop-off containers there, too.

He learned of a supply drive the River Falls Area Hospital holds each year and began talking about it around the wellness center. Soon the hospital agreed to donate its items for the Tuesday Banquet event.

One woman Gustafson knows duplicates the supply list and donates the items.

"What we're trying to do is collaborating to make it a community-wide effort," Gustafson said. "It's just kind of evolved more and more. It's a little like the Christmas-gift program."

The coordinator admits the event is a lot of work but well worth it. He says the volunteers' reward is when families leave saying, "We don't know what we would have done without these."

One lady Gustafson talked to at a store said she spent $75 on her child's supplies.

He watches for sales to make the most of monetary donations, like the recent Kiwanis gift of $500. Cash helps the group buy things people don't donate such as computer flash drives.

"A lot of us are unfamiliar with what to buy," said the coordinator.

Gustafson said the people in need are impeccably honest when picking out items. If a child needs a backpack, they offer those, too.

He said leftover supplies are given to the district so that it has something for children in need who couldn't get to the banquet.

People can get the school-supply lists from each school's respective website, accessing any of the school sites through the district's:

Gustafson said people can call him at 425-2516 to coordinate delivery of donations. St. Bridget does the Tuesday Banquet's accounting, so people can drop off or send monetary gifts to the church, 211 E. Division. Checks should be payable to the Tuesday Banquet.

The coordinator said, "It's an absolutely wonderful project."

Creative giving

Principal Nate Schurman, beginning his third year at Greenwood Elementary, tells how the school receives unsolicited donations of supplies.

The first year they came in a box; the second year they came in backpacks. He's heard of families that hold birthday parties for their kids but ask that instead of gifts for the child, guests bring school supplies to donate.

Schurman said the school keeps those on hand for kids who come to school without what they need.

School Superintendent Tom Westerhaus confirmed with district staff that any supplies donated at the district office -- in past years for example, a UW-River Falls student group has brought collected items -- are distributed among all the schools and given to children as needed.