With dollars still tight, nonprofits expect to hand out more school supplies than last year

Inflation is coming down, but families are still feeling a squeeze, so national and local human services agencies are prepared for more back-to-school backpack giveaways to meet the need.

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Showing up with your supplies the first day is important for students, experts say. It empowers children and makes them feel ready to learn.

Students who show up with school supplies on the first day of classes feel empowered and ready to learn, experts say.

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Advice, resources, and reflections on back-to-school season for Chicago's students, families, and educators.

Each year, the lists are the same: pencils, pens, paper, glue sticks, folders and paper towels. But the prices are not.

Last year, buying the basic back-to-school supplies was difficult for many families because of rising inflation.

The annual back-to-school spending survey by Deloitte put the average cost of supplies at $661 per child, an increase of 27% since 2019. That includes not only the backpacks but clothes and shoes. All families seemed to feel the squeeze, but the cuts were deepest for families struggling to make it through each month.

This year, no one is expecting things to change.

“Dollars are still tight,” said Dr. Judith Allen, clinical director and chief operating officer of Communities in Schools of Chicago. “Families are working but not making enough to support the household. There is not enough money for people to manage. They are living paycheck to paycheck.”

“Yes, we are seeing inflation is coming down,” she added. “We also know that wages are not going up.”

In 2022, the state offered families and educators a state tax holiday on certain school supplies and school-related items. Sales tax dropped from 6.25% to 1.25%. This year, 17 states and Puerto Rico have announced summer tax holidays, but Illinois was not yet one of them as of press time.

That is why several local and national nonprofits started preparing early. Allen said her organization started looking at school supplies in May, before teachers’ supply lists came out, normally about mid-June. Her organization has been packing backpacks all summer, thanks to thousands of volunteers, to hand out to students returning to school.

So has Cradles to Crayons Chicago, which supplies many of the nonprofits in the area.

“Last year, we handed out 70,000 backpacks, and we knew we weren’t meeting the need,” said Dawn Melchiorre, Cradles to Crayons Chicago executive director. “This year, we will distribute 90,000 backpacks filled with school supplies.

Nonprofits that hand out school supplies to families in need are expecting there will be more need this year.

Nonprofits that hand out school supplies to families in need are expecting there will be more need this year.

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“Ninety thousand is a lot, but it’s still not enough. It’s our mission to make sure that children living in homeless and low-income situations have the things they need to thrive,” said Melchiorre.

The nonprofits want to ensure children have the supplies and backpacks for the first day.

“Some of what we hear from teachers and principals is that if a child doesn’t come in on day one with the things they need to succeed, they are already behind,” Melchiorre said. It’s not just the supplies they need. It’s also the boost it gives a child, she said. “It is that social-emotional feeling of pride: I have a brand new backpack and supplies and clothes and shoes, and I am ready to learn.”

So, tens of thousands of volunteers have been packing backpacks, and many events have been scheduled for distribution.

Chicago Public Schools, which will open Aug. 21, scheduled 13 Back-to-School Bashes to hand out supplies from July 21 through Aug. 18.

And this year, several nonprofits that run human services programs said they also have gotten requests for more than paper and pencils.

Sherifat Olowopopo, a director of clinical, community and support services, said, like many organizations, hers asks parents and kids what they need for school every year. She asked the middle school and high school girls in the programs she manages for Ada S. McKinley Community Services, the largest human services provider on the South Side.

The answers surprised her, and she’s been working there for 20 years. As a result, she said McKinley “purchased different hygiene kits — including shampoo, conditioner, body wash, toothbrush and toothpaste — and menstrual kits,” Olowopopo said. “They have never asked for this before.”

Melchiorre, of Cradles to Crayons, said the organization distributes its backpacks to Chicago Public Schools students through numerous programs such as the Big Shoulders Fund and the YMCA. But she said it will continue to hand out school supplies year-round as children need them.

“We always see an uptick in January when they return to school,” she said.

Susy Schultz is a freelance editor and reporter.

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