Back-to-school season has never been my favorite time of year. Even now, long after I’ve stopped hearing that 8 a.m. bell that beckons me to class, I fight off a feeling of trepidation as the schools supplies start taking up more space than summer coolers and flip-flops in the Sunday circulars.

But, years ago, when the end of August really did signal the sunset on one more summer and days of freedom, there was one saving grace of the season — the shopping for supplies that always accompanied a brand new school year.

While I’m not positive all those fuzzy-headed troll pens and fancy folders helped me score better grades or made hitting the books again less painful, I do remember the fascination with school shopping and the myriad treasures it brought.

From trendy clothes and a backpack with nylon so new the straps still had creases to shiny plastic boxes chock full of pencils with precise points, checkerboard-colored erasers, glue sticks that had yet to be smeared and crayons that had never colored, the school supplies somehow brightened the tasks I knew would soon be on the way. There really is nothing like a fresh notebook that still makes that distinct sound of crisp paper crackling on wire hinges before they’re both broken in.

Today, I’m sure there are still joys of the season, but for families who can’t afford all the treats I found in store aisles each August, the season can pack a particularly large punch.

Back-to-school shopping may be as much a rite of passage as necessity for kids, but the National Retail Federation reports it can be a pain for parents, who often spend in excess of $525 during the unofficial season that marks the end of summer and the return to classes.

In 2004, Census reports found an estimated 18.9 percent of Mercer County’s 61,298 people were living under the national poverty level. For these people, making ends meet means cutting corners on all non-necessities and still stretching a family budget as far as it will go.

Things like pencil boxes and crisp new notebook paper often fall into the category of things that would be nice to have but impossible to purchase.

That’s why organizations such as the United Way and even the Maple View Church of Christ have stepped up to help students and school systems find the items they need to help students make the grade when classes resume.

And, in an ongoing effort, United Way of the Virginias and Mapleview Church have set out to Stuff the School Bus at Wal-Mart in Princeton, Bluefield, Va., and Kimball and Magic Mart in Tazewell, Va. With volunteers in each location, the group aims to work again this weekend to fill bookbags and school shelves with supplies for kids in Mercer, McDowell and Tazewell counties.

The organization isn’t asking for huge donations, just a little from as many shoppers as possible, Executive Director Michelle Williams said.

“We’re trying to make this as easy for people to help as possible. If you’re in Wal-Mart anyway, grab a couple extra notebooks. You grab a couple extra things of glue. You can buy a lot of notebooks for $5,” she explained recently.

For residents who want to help but don’t wish to shop for the cause, Williams said United Way team members will also accept monetary donations in the form of cash or check.

Money collected in each county will stay in that county. For example, contributions used to Stuff the Bus at the Princeton Wal-Mart will be used to help students in Mercer County, and the same will be true for the stores in McDowell and Tazewell counties. Since the Bluefield, Va., Wal-Mart is just across the West Virginia state line, United Way officials said donors may choose which county it will assist.

School officials will designate which students or classrooms receive the supplies.

The first weekend of Stuff the Bus collection took place last weekend, but the school supply drive will continue this weekend, 10 a.m.—6 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m.—6 p.m. on Sunday.

It may take hundreds of dollars to completely outfit a child to go back to school for a term, but as little as $1 will buy a notebook, a box of 24-count crayons and a stick of glue. That’s enough to keep a child writing, coloring and creating for at least a month, and almost all of us can afford that.

Tammie Toler is Princeton Times editor and general manager. Contact her at ttoler@ptonline.net.

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