Nearly everyone can recall a first day of school, walking into a new classroom dressed in a smart-looking outfit and spiffy shoes and carrying a book bag full of supplies.
Shepherd's Staff, an ecumenical ministry to the needy, wants to guarantee those memories for the many children whose parents can't afford the expenses associated with the opening of school.
With its fifth annual Back to School program, the Westminster center expects to give away nearly 1,000 school kits and several hundred backpacks.
"I would like to see every child have those component pieces to go back to school," said Kathy Brown, director of Shepherd's Staff. "Every child deserves that opportunity to be well-prepared."
Community groups and churches have contributed and several neighborhoods have organized events to help with funding.
Distribution begins Monday
Distribution begins Monday at the center on Carroll Street. Volunteers have filled school kits with paper, pencils and other classroom tools. Visitors can shop at a storeroom filled with nearly new clothing, all sized and sorted. While the supply lasts, children can select a backpack.
"I have seen their faces when they choose a backpack or when they are shopping in our shed," Brown said. "If a new school kit and backpack makes a child feel good on the first day of school, it is our responsibility to see they get it. It is what we call self-esteem today."
This year, the center has added vouchers for shoes and haircuts to the program.
"There is something magical about walking into a new classroom in new shoes," said Brown. "Getting on the bus or walking down the street to school, there is a pride that puts you on the level with everyone else."
Brown has always wanted to include a gift of shoes in the school program. This year, grants -- from United Way and St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Westminster -- and a discount from Payless Shoes in Cranberry Mall will make that possible.
"A family can go to Payless with our vouchers and buy new shoes," said Brown. "I want to give these kids a boost. If a new pair of shoes is part of the process, let's do it."
Several salons have offered discounts on haircuts and a stylist has volunteered an afternoon at the center.
Lynda Gainor, director of Carroll County Head Start, said the staff's program has children looking forward to school.
Shepherd's Staff has set aside an afternoon for 3- and 4-year-old children and their parents. The families can shop for clothing, pick up the kits and visit the hairstylist.
"Everybody does back-to-school preparations like this in the normal world," Gainor said. "For us, it is helping the whole family put an emphasis on education and back to school. It will really help put everyone in an education mode."
Many Shepherd's Staff clients are working poor, and the expense of outfitting several children for school can strain the family budget. It costs about $100 for essentials for each child and "that's not three new outfits," Brown said.
"These families really have to stretch their budgets for school supplies," she said. "We want to help them send children to school properly equipped. It is better for the child's self-esteem and makes for better learning.
"Kids have a tough enough time in school today," said Brown. "Why add another layer of problems? This program is so simple."
Shepherd's Staff is at 30 Carroll St. Information: 410-857-5944.