The Bartow ENGAGE Chamber Young Professionals' community project is, “Stuff the Bus,” that includes collecting school supply donations for Polk’s students in need. The campaign generally begins mid-July and continues through mid-August - just in time for school. This year, stuff the Bus begins Monday, July 11 and continues through Friday, August 19, 2016.
“The number of homeless children and youth in the Polk County School System is growing year after year,” said Dee Dee Wright, Polk County School Board Project Hearth Specialist. “Last year we identified more than 2800 homeless people throughout Polk County,” she said. Homeless children and youth are students who lack a fixed regular and adequate nighttime residence. Families are considered homeless who have “doubled up” at a residence, or are living in substandard housing or hotels. Women with children living in a charity home are also considered homeless by Project Hearth - the Polk County School Board’s services department for homeless students. The average age of a school-aged homeless person is nine years old. It has been estimated that at any given time, there are more than 350 school aged, enrolled homeless children in Polk County.
Ms. Wright’s office works to address the needs of Polk’s homeless students year round.
Anyone may donate to the drive by bringing donations to the Bartow Chamber of Commerce in July or August.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Kathryn Bevilacqua-Ely, ENGAGE Chairwoman. “When we found out how many kids in Polk were homeless, we couldn’t believe it. Many of our members have school-aged children themselves, and it's shocking to realize that there are so many children in our area without a stable place to live,” she added. “The Bartow community is so supportive, last year they generously brought in school supplies for these children. This year we are hoping for another great turnout, every little bit helps."
Anyone wishing to make a monetary donation to homeless school-aged children in Polk County may do so by writing a check to the Polk County Education Foundation and writing “Hearth” in the memo line of the check. Checks may be dropped off at the Bartow Chamber, anytime. Donations will be used to purchase caps and gowns for seniors, pay for school physicals and pay for needed birth certificates.
According to Wright, the items most needed this time of year are school supplies including backpacks, zip binders (Trapper Keepers), paper, 3-prong folders, spiral notebooks and calculators (scientific and graphing). In addition, school uniforms, gift cards for food, medical and dental services are much needed. Although hygiene items such as shampoo, conditioner, soap, deodorant, hair brushes and feminine products are always appreciated, the most dire need at this time are the school supplies.
ENGAGE is a program designed to offer social networking, professional development and volunteer opportunities to ambitious young professionals, ages 21 to 42. Membership in the group is free to Chamber members, and $50 a year for non-members, and is geared toward improving career opportunities, developing leadership abilities, building personal networks and giving back to the greater Bartow community. Members make valuable connections with peers from various industries and have access to prominent and influential leaders.