Tacoma’s rite of fall – backpack stuffing

Buying school supplies for kids they don’t know ranks high on the list of Tacomans’ finest habits. No sooner do crayons go on sale for a quarter and markers hit 50 cents than Tacomans load up the shopping cart, swipe the debit card and broadcast the tools for a happy school year.

They hold drives at work and church and book clubs. When they shop for backpacks with their kids, they let them pick an extra one and fill it with all the supplies on the teachers’ list. Sometimes they tuck in a book.

Solo, they dart into school offices to leave piles of notebooks. As groups, they support neighborhood schools. Citywide (and county-wide) they team with Communities in Schools to Stuff The Bus. This year, Tacomans donated enough supplies to put 3,000 backpacks on buses bound for neighborhoods where many families live on low incomes and kids know that school is the best path to prosperity.

On Aug. 28, the bus was due at Salishan’s Family Investment Center at 2 p.m. Word was, there would be 300 backpacks filled with supplies on it. Salishan mom Lisa Miller was in charge of the line. A relentless volunteer, Miller is on a first-name-and-a-hug basis with scores of Salishan kids. This was her third summer working with St. Leo’s Food Connection and managing the lunch program at the picnic shelter.

Michael Power, manager of educational programs for Tacoma Housing Authority, arrived as Miller was stationing the lunch kids at the front of the line.

“This is in collaboration with our Brown Bags and Books free summer lunch and learning program, which serves about 40 low-income kids per day,” Power said.

Oh, and by the way, he added, Miller is spectacular. She knows everybody because she’s everywhere. She works at Lister Elementary School and collaborates with the Kimi and Dr. George Tanbara clinic to spread the word on healthy lifestyle choices. She’s at every festival, every event, building and keeping the peace. Managing the growing line, her signature superpower came into its own.

“Finally!” she laughed. “The one time my A.D.D. comes in handy!”

As she said it, someone tugged on her T-shirt. A 6-year-old girl had lost a tooth, and Miller was off to help the child rinse out her mouth and put the tooth in a safe pocket.

The line was squiggling and growing. Kids were excited about backpacks, just as Power had hoped they would be.

“This is all part of our campaign of expectations,” he said. “We expect our children to have success in school and graduate high school ready for college or a job.”

To that end, THA gave out 500 books to young people over the summer and is working to sign up all eligible students for the College Bound Scholarship program.

It was 2 p.m., and the bus STILL wasn’t there. The squiggling intensified, and the line grew around the back side of the Family Investment Center. Representatives of Opus Bank, Old Republic Title and Escrow, Sterling Bank, Columbia Bank, the Tacoma Rainiers, some of the companies that donated supplies were there. Other donors – Puget Sound Orthopedics, the Mount Tahoma High School Football Team, Costco, Titus Will Ford, University of Washington-Tacoma, Nordstrom and Grace Community Church - greeted students at other Communities in Schools stops.

Miller wanted to thank them all.

The backpacks, she said, were a physical expression of their good wishes for these children. “It makes kids feel like they’re going to school maybe a little on top of their game for the year. They’re hopeful. They’re thinking, ‘This year I’m going to do really good.’”

Bella Hernandez, 6, was heading into first grade, and thought about what that new backpack would mean to her.

“It means my supplies and my school stuff, and it means my teacher’s homework that I have to carry in it,” she said. “I want a baby blue one.”

Like Bella, Max Bass is headed to first grade at Lister.

“I can carry my stuff, and I can bring my homework home and work on it,” he said. “A backpack means very, very much to me.”

At 9, Haylie Jensen, is an old hand, going into Lister’s fourth grade.

“It means a lot to me, because I can carry my school work in it. I don’t want to lose any of it, because I want to get a good grade,” she said. “A backpack keeps everything safe.”

And then Rhubarb, Tacoma Rainiers’ celebrity reindeer, appeared and the bus pulled in. Volunteers ran inside, grabbed backpacks and ran them out to the company representatives, who held them up for kids to choose.

There were baby blues among them, and skaters, and starbursts.

There were 300 of them – and some 350 students.

It’s not too late to stuff a backpack – they’ll be on sale soon – and start a student’s school year off with a gift of confidence.

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