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8:42 AM Wed, Nov. 21st

CCJ revamps Fair Start back-to-school program

For some 15 years, the Coalition for Compassion and Justice has collected and distributed donations of school supplies to students from low-income families from throughout the region. (MetroGraphics)

For some 15 years, the Coalition for Compassion and Justice has collected and distributed donations of school supplies to students from low-income families from throughout the region. (MetroGraphics)

In an African village, a group of children are invited to play a game with a basket of fruit placed underneath a big tree.

All the children are lined up in a row and told whoever reaches the basket first can take all the fruit. Instead the children joined hands and all reached the basket at the same time. Then they formed a circle and shared the fruits together.

Coalition of Compassion and Justice Executive Director Jessi Hans loves this story as it speaks to the spirit of sharing and generosity in a community. It is the backbone philosophy of the nonprofit leader’s effort to revise the agencies’ Fair Start back-to-school program.

For some 15 years, CCJ has collected and distributed donations of back-to-school supplies to students from low-income families from throughout the region. They then organized all the donations for a weekend distribution event where eligible children and teens were able to come and pick out their supplies and backpacks on a first-come, first-serve basis. Some local churches and civic clubs also coordinated similar, smaller scale programs.

In talks with CCJ leadership, and some other local organizations, Hans and her team envisioned a new approach to the Fair Start program.

Rather than ask families to come and pick up donated supplies, CCJ will equip school classrooms with the amount of supplies they need for all their students. In that way, all the student must bring is an empty backpack. The teacher will supply the rest of the crayons, pencils, notebooks and other things they need for the start of school.

With this idea in mind, Hans and her team talked with other area groups that coordinate these efforts as well as with school district leaders. They determined the average cost of buying individual supplies and backpacks was about $80 per student. If they, however, bulk purchase all the supplies and backpacks that rate can be reduced to $20 per student.

As it was unrealistic to supply all classrooms in all three public school districts all at once, CCJ opted to launch the project with the selection of one school from each district.

All of the teachers in that school will then be given enough supplies for their individual classrooms.

The inaugural schools were selected based on the number of students who receive free and reduced lunch: Lincoln Elementary in Prescott Unified; Chino Valley High School in Chino Valley Unified and Mountain View Elementary in Humboldt Unified.

The Heights Church, Verizon and Yavapai Food Bank are partnering in this project, but for the time being ill continue to do their own collections and distributions. That way, Hans said, no one misses out on a chance to participate, she said.

The hope is that some donors, including those willing to make sizeable contributions, opt to adopt a school of their choice to assist with not only supplies but with any of their needs, be it time, talent or resources.

“I want people to be connected to their community schools,” Hans said.

After this inaugural effort, Hans said the goal will be for a community collaboration so that within the next five years every classroom in every school in the three districts is equipped with all the supplies a student might require.

At least, Hans said this will be CCJ’s intent “until our government gets its act together and does it.”

“Our goal for Fair Start is to be the first community in the nation to fully supply our school districts — a national model,” Hans said.

Chino Valley High Principal Heidi Wolf wholeheartedly endorses the project.

“I’m proud and humbled and happy,” Wolf said of their selection to be one of the inaugural schools in this revamped program.

Too often, she said, high schools are forgotten when it comes to these back-to-school efforts.

“When kids get older, people assume kids are getting their own stuff, and that’s not necessarily true,” Wolf said.

Supplying the individual classrooms will be beneficial for students who do not have the transportation to attend a particular event, as well as reducing any embarrassment a student might have about asking for what they cannot afford, Wolf said.

This way, a teacher will be able to let students know she has those items in her classroom for anyone to take so there is no stigma, she suggested.

“I love the idea. I think it’s wonderful. I’m so pleased, and grateful, they chose us,” Wolf said.

Hans is clear this is a first step, but an important one to assuring all children get a “fair start.”

“I don’t want to have kids waiting in line to get what they need,” Hans said. “We’re better than that. Education is more important than that!”

Review the group's mission statement here.

Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter @HutsonNanci. She can be reached at 928-445-3333 ext. 2041 or via email at nhutson@prescottaz.com.