NEWLAND — As families are already looking ahead to the beginning of the 2021-22 school year slated to begin in mid-August, Avery County Schools and Camp Linn Haven are partnering again this summer to provide backpacks and school supplies to area students and classes.

Next week, families with one or more children in schools across Avery County will be able to visit the camp, picking up supplies and backpacks that will be loaded with everything from crayons or markers and paper to pencils, pens and water bottles.

According to Bev Baird with Avery County Schools, in the mid 2010s ACS began a Back to School Bash under then-ACS Superintendent Dr. David Burleson, which provided not only backpacks that were packed in-house by the system, but other opportunities such as free haircuts and donated services from other vendors and community organizations. The Bash outgrew its original location at Linville Land Harbor and transitioned into Avery High School, which was bolstered by a letter-writing campaign where donors assisted with supplies and financial assistance, with the additional practice of parking school buses at strategic locations around the county to collect supplies.

In 2018, the program was revamped with the formation of a community partnership between the system and Camp Linn Haven. That summer, according to CLH Manager and Director Teirsa Lane, what began as a result of a cancellation of plans has evolved into a ministry that is making an impact on area schools.

“At the camp, we host two servant event weeks every summer as a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church camp, and we have youth from all over the country who come with their youth groups to our camp. Four summers ago, one of the work sites canceled on us at the last minute, so we were searching for something to do and we decided to contact the fire department and make bags that the fire department could then send to kids whose homes have flooded or burned or whatever,” Lane explained. “The department explained that they were grateful but that they already had received so many items, and offered us a better idea. I called our treasurer and asked how much money we could quickly spend, so we went out and purchased supplies to make around 70 backpacks. I then called the chamber of commerce to ask where to take them, and was told to go to the high school, where I first met Bev. It just kind of snowballed from there and became one of our biggest projects, and now we raise money all year long for the project.”

Lane noted that some donors will give money, while some will donate supplies. Still others have found a unique way to give back through an insurance card option.

“There’s also an insurance company named Thrivent Insurance that allows someone to apply for a $250 caregiving card twice a year, so we also have a lot of people who apply for those cards and will either send the cards to us or will purchase the items for the backpacks and send them to us,” Lane explained. “So far this year, not counting any of the cards, we’ve raised over $13,000 to use for shopping for supplies.”

From CLH’s first year of filling backpacks with supplies in 2018, the numbers of packed bags have continued to exponentially increase even as the event itself evolved. According to Baird, in 2019 the backpacks could not be delivered to Avery High School due to the beginning of the school’s renovation project, so the packs were packed at Crossnore Elementary School in a joint effort between ACS and CLH. As 2020 took shape, the pandemic tightened its grip on the community and forced school closures, but the groups remained steadfast in wanting to provide supplies to area kids.

“Last year, with the pandemic, we didn’t know exactly what was gonna happen,” Baird said. “So I get this call from Teirsa back in March, and she says, “We’re still onboard. We’ve been collecting money.”

As the summer of 2020 progressed, ACS and CLH worked in tandem to be able to coordinate the process of purchasing and packing supplies to get to students and families.

“So last year, as we were trying to figure out how we are going to distribute these backpacks, we didn’t have the facility to have any kind of large gathering where parents can come and pick these up and have vendors come in like we’ve had in the past, which was very successful,” Baird explained. “So last year, we gave them out again, we distributed them equally among the schools based on a count that they gave us of what they felt like they needed.”

In preparation for compiling supplies this year, CLH stepped in to provide the location to not only pack, but also distribute the finished backpacks.

“We’re talking with Teirsa and she’s like, ‘Why don’t we pick the backpacks up at the camp?’” Baird added. “I think it’s so important for the community to put a name with a face or face with a name and see who’s really behind all of this donations and all of the work that is really working for your kids and their community.”

Despite the adversity brought on by the pandemic last summer, volunteers helped CLH pack a total of 600 backpacks with supplies for elementary, middle school and high school students in Avery County. This year, Lane says the goal is to fill 700 backpacks, a total that represents more than 30 percent of the total student population of the county, while going a long way toward meeting family needs of providing school supplies for students while also having to juggle purchasing school clothes and meeting basic needs like paying utilities, a balance that can often prove difficult for many low-income families in the area.

“This program provides direct relief to the families that are trying to operate, it helps them to avoid a cost to getting the school year started. Fifty-two percent of our kids are coming from a background of poverty… and even with kids that you wouldn’t think need this relief, it’s a big relief, especially with multiple kids,” ACS Superintendent Dr. Dan Brigman said. “A pet peeve of mine is that we impose supply lists to our families without giving consideration to the impact that it has on the financial issues they face in the homes. It helps us pull those back in to be more realistic on what we expect students to be able to bring in on the first day of school, so it’s serving multiple purposes for us. It helps us to align what’s needed to get school started for all our kids, and it’s also giving priority to those kids who otherwise wouldn’t have the family support or the basic support to get these supplies that families need. Every parent or guardian wants their child to be prepared for that first day of school, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes, whether that’s not paying an electric bill or not paying a gas bill to make sure that their kids have it, and this is providing that family relief in addition to giving kids what they need to succeed. It’s a win-win all around and we’re so blessed to have the support of Camp Linn Haven and the volunteers coming to support the operational aspects of this project.”

Shopping by CLH volunteers will take place on July 26 and 27, with volunteers packing bags on July 28. Families are able to pick up backpacks on the campus of Camp Linn Haven, located at 1308 Linville Falls Hwy. in Newland, on Thursday, July 29. Pickup time is from 3 to 6 p.m., with the following staggered times designated for each specific school within the county:

Riverside Elementary, Cranberry Middle and Freedom Trail Elementary schools — 3 to 4 p.m.

Crossnore Elementary, Newland Elementary and Avery Middle schools — 4 to 5 p.m.

Avery High, Blue Ridge High and Banner Elk Elementary schools — 5 to 6 p.m.

Refreshments will be provided at the camp for families as they pick up their supplies, and for those parents unable to pick up their supplies during the specified time, backpacks will be sent to their students’ respective schools, where they may be picked up during that school’s Open House.

Families with multiple children in Avery County Schools are asked to come to the pickup time that corresponds to their youngest student. For example, for a family with a child attending Riverside Elementary and a child attending Avery Middle School, that family should come to the time designated for Riverside to pick up supplies for all the family’s children.

Looking forward, both Avery County Schools and Camp Linn Haven hope to continue to strengthen their partnership in this initiative to provide a great start to the school year for area children for years to come.

“I see every time that we’ve had a need, it’s been met. Whatever the need is, I foresee us being able to meet that,” Baird noted. “Last year, we packed 600 backpacks and used nearly all of them, and this year we’re planning on 700. Every year, whatever the need is, it’s going to come to us, because I feel that we’re going to be able to rise up to the need. That’s where this program has been, and that’s where it’s going. Every time there’s been a need, it’s just come together. The Lord has provided, and that is where this has come from. The Lord has provided Camp Linn Haven, the Lord has provided the funds, and that’s where this program is going.”

For more information on the backpack program or to make donations at any time during the year, call Avery County Schools at (828) 733-6006 or Lane with Camp Linn Haven at (828) 320-2840.

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