The Target parking lot at 1790 Airline Hwy. in Hollister was full of surprises on the morning of Aug. 7.
With its symbolic school bus parked in the lot, the United Way of San Benito County’s ninth annual Stuff the Bus event kicked off at 10 a.m. with over 1,300 filled backpacks to give out to selected county students.
“For every child that our school districts identify as needing a backpack, there is a backpack here for them,” said UWSBC Coordinator Vicki Fortino.
As with past Stuff The Bus events, United Way teamed up with the San Benito County Office of Education to provide K-12 students with grade-appropriate school supplies such as 2-inch and 3-ring binders, crayons, erasers, pens, pencils, notebooks, rulers, highlighters and pocket calculators.
Select businesses in Hollister, such as local banks and the SBC Office of Education, had pop-up bus sites to collect school supplies or donations.
“There was one in my office, and it was full,” said San Benito County Superintendent of Schools Krystal Lomanto, also a UWSBC board member.
“People put pencils, rulers, and crayons, and then we just added it to the mix of what Vicki ordered. We have had a ton of volunteer support.”
Close to 100 volunteers showed up two hours beforehand to fill the backpacks, according to Fortino.
“We had three assembly lines going, dividing TK through first; second grade through eighth; and then high school,” Fortino said. “Little kids get crayons, big kids get scientific calculators and highlighters—they all get notebooks and pencils. So it’s grade specific. If we have any left, the schools will take them in case kids come during the year that they didn’t know about.”
Students who were identified to receive free backpacks were mailed letters by their school districts about the event. Volunteers from the office of education were on site to check in identified students, and students would then go to their grade-level station to receive their backpacks.
“We don’t send a kid away without a backpack,” Fortino said. “If they’re not on the list, we add them to the list and send them over to get a backpack. Over the last few weeks, I have gotten a lot of calls from parents who’ve seen the advertising for the event, and so I told them to call their school, or to just show up if they can’t get a hold of everybody.”
Among the volunteer squad were the United Way board; Hollister Rotary (giving out free water and 500 hot dogs donated by Hollister Super Market); faculty from the Aromas/San Juan and Spring Grove school districts; and representatives from the SBCOE. Students from high school clubs such as ASB and 4-H were also on hand. Students in Hollister’s summer YMCA program made banners for the bus that was parked at the event.
“Many community members just showed up to volunteer this year,” Lomanto said.
One high school volunteer in particular, moved Fortino and Lomanto to tears.
“She came up and told me that she started getting backpacks when she was a little girl, and now she showed up to volunteer,” Fortino said. “Her mom was a single mom. She said if it was not for this, she would not have had school supplies to be able to be successful at school.”
Among school supplies found in backpacks, students also received gift cards donated from Straw Hat Pizza, and $25 Visa cards from The United Farm Workers Foundation. Flyers for 211, which provides families with local resources that help with food, health, and housing issues, and the free learning app Footsteps2Brilliance were also placed in backpacks.
“Footsteps2Brilliance is a free app that has a thousand books in English and Spanish,” Lomanto explained. “You don’t need the internet, and it has games and vocabulary lessons for children from birth to third grade.”
Target employees also brought out boxes of hand sanitizer to give to every student. Nearly 200 bottles were distributed.
Fortino said that this year, the number of backpacks given out were lower than in years past. With COVID-19 cancelling the event last year, districts took the backpacks to give to students, so schools still have backpacks left over from last year. “We’ve done up to 2,000 backpacks some years. It just depends,” she said.
Incoming 11th grader Sarivet Bracamontes was touched by the event.
“I feel very special that they chose us to have these backpacks.”
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