When word got out that hundreds—no, thousands—of students didn’t have the money for school supplies, Santa Cruz residents, businesses and charity groups got in gear.
They came up with a program called “Stuff the Bus,” which literally filled a giant yellow school bus with backpacks stuffed with the needed supplies, including pens, pencils, notebooks, crayons, erasers, glue, highlighters, staplers and index cards.
The good news is that the project has gathered some 2,000 backpacks so far. The bad news is that so many kids truly need them and they are struggling through homelessness and poverty.
Among the groups sponsoring the program, which got going some 14 years ago, are United Way, Comcast, the County Office of Education, DoorDash and the Santa Cruz Warriors.
Comcast stepped up during the floods and the pandemic, supplying free internet service (called Internet Essentials) to those in need and giving $50,000 cash to United Way programs to help flood victims. Its employees are among the 150 who are volunteering to stuff the backpacks and the bus.
“It’s an opportunity for the community to come together,” says Lennies Gutierrez, Director of Government Affairs for Comcast, whose family came out in public for the first time after Covid to stuff the bus last year. “We were all so happy to be out there in the community again. Our employees are really looking for stuff like this to do. That’s been a really important piece of getting out there. It’s a great showing of support.” Comcast also made a cash contribution of $2,500 to the effort.
The most recent data from the 2022-23 school year shows that nearly one in every 20 Santa Cruz County students are experiencing homelessness, a rate 45 percent higher than across California. That’s 1,761 students, out of 38,025 total in TK-12.
If you have a kid—or were a kid (ha)—you know how important having a fresh backpack with the right supplies is to feel good about school. And not having them discourages kids from wanting to go.
While the need is greater, there are signs that the targeted interventions—of which “Stuff the Bus“ is just one—are having an impact. In Santa Cruz County, students experiencing homelessness have a four-year graduation rate of 81.8 percent, compared to 72.9 percent statewide (average for all students is about 87 percent statewide).
Attendance data tells the same story. Santa Cruz County students experiencing homelessness have a 38.5 percent chronic absenteeism rate compared to 46.1 percent chronic absenteeism rate statewide
“Students experiencing homelessness are some of the least likely to make it to high school,” says Superintendent of County Schools Faris Sabbah. “We know the earlier we can intervene and support them and provide them the resources they need, like getting them a backpack every year, will help them and increase their likelihood of meeting those outcomes.”
Students face additional problems from natural disasters such as the CZU fire in 2020 and this year’s Pajaro floods, which left many more homeless. Thankfully, Santa Cruz has stepped up and the bus is already at 93 percent full and 150 employees of local businesses have volunteered to pack backpacks at Kaiser Permanente Arena Aug. 5.
“Santa Cruz really comes out for this,” says United Way CEO Keisha Browder. “For ‘Stuff the Bus’ to have been here for over a decade, you may think it would decrease and people would become disengaged and some would say same old, same old, but really Santa Cruz County continues to show up and make sure this is one of the signature premiere events for back to school, for our young people. This community comes out every year.”
There are pick up spots for families to get the backpacks, and for those who can’t get to them, Door Dash has contributed a grant to drive them to locations for the families in need.
The Stuff the Bus group has worked with a vendor who sells $80 worth of supplies for only $25. People who want to contribute cash can do so at Unitedwaysc.org
Should the county raise more backpacks than are needed immediately, they can be stockpiled for kids who need help after natural disasters. Hundreds were already distributed this year after the Pajaro floods that left many families without homes.
“That was a shining example of what this program can do,” says County Office of Education spokesman Nick Ibarra.
“We are vigilant in identifying people who are experiencing homelessness and that allows us to intervene quickly and maybe be preventative in our approach,” says Sabbah, the superintendent who has been working toward a community and school approach. “The districts and the schools are keenly aware of the needs of the students and the schools are moving toward being hubs for a variety of services from food and supplies and medical care and behavioral care.”
Browder, the United Way CEO says “It’s more than a backpack. It’s how we come together as a community with our COE to support those needs outside of the classroom. So that when a child is inside the classroom they can fully focus and live up to their greatest potential because those other needs are being met.”
She saw how important the program is when she saw a new first grade girl get her first backpack.
“She walked into the County Office of Education and they told her you could pick your backpack and she went up and picked a backpack and I remember her picking up the pencil pouch, smelling the pencil pouch.
“I thought there must be something wrong with the pencil pouch. But she smelled it because it was brand new. And she said, ‘This is mine. I don’t have to share. This is my backpack.’ And that moment stayed with me. This is the power of ‘Stuff the Bus’. The smell of new meant so much to that student.”
By Brad Kava