By MARINA WATERS
Soon enough the aisles of your local stores will be covered with pencils, composition notebooks and erasers—but at West View Elementary School, volunteers are already filling school counselor Clarinda Whitson’s classroom with all the school supplies they can muster for each of their students.
The school is aiming to equip each and every student with all their school supplies, and with a student poverty rate at 75 percent, the school sent a letter into the community to announce the Aug. 4 Back to School Bash and to request donations for everything from glue sticks and crayons to pencils and highlighters. But the school is hoping to provide more than just educational supplies; Whitson and the West View Vols are making sure these kids come to school with the essentials as well.
“What I’m noticing is those first couple days of school. There was a huge difference in how the children from lower income families were dressed as opposed to the kids from an average or medium income family,” Whitson said. “They still had on the shoes the school bought them last year or at Christmas time. They had the same backpacks. They didn’t have haircuts. So those were things in the past years that we’ve been able to provide. But it would take the first week or so to get all those things to the students.
“I want my kids to walk in and them not be able to tell the difference. Just so those kids feel better about themselves. So they don’t feel like they stick out.”
Since the beginning of last year’s Back to School Bash, the goal has been to provide every student with the supplies, but it’s also been to help build student self-esteem.
“You could tell a difference in the confidence in these kids because they weren’t having to go ask the teachers, ‘Can I go to Mrs. Whitson and get a new backpack?’ They came in that first day with that new stuff,” Whitson said. “They weren’t the ones that didn’t have the notebooks that the teacher asked for. And they weren’t having to go ask for it—they had it already.”
Whitson said the carnival-style event — which will feature inflatables, games and free food — will give students the chance to “win” their school supplies through the different games at the bash, all while having fun.
She also said it gives the students who might not need as much assistance to still play games and enjoy the event. It will also give parents a chance to casually meet their child’s teacher before the school’s open house. Meanwhile, kids will be able to get their school supplies while families have the opportunity to take home any soap or shampoo they might need that will also be available at the event.
For West View Head Principal Patton Gamble, what’s most memorable from last year’s inaugural event were the parent volunteers who offered free haircuts to students.
“Last year, one of the things that stuck out in my mind was one of our parents and a colleague, they cut hair from the start to beyond the end time,” Whitson said. “I think she’s going to have more than just a couple this year, but that was a big deal.”
Those services don’t just end at the bash; Gamble also said folks at West View, like Whitson, try to watch out for these needs from the start of school and beyond.
“Mrs. Whitson will take 10 or 12 kids on a bus up to Crockett to their cosmetology department to have haircuts. It really changes the kids’ self esteem. For those parents, it gets expensive if you’ve got five kids, yourself and a spouse. That’s seven haircuts,” Gamble said. “That’s something Mrs. Whitson has an eye for, seeing when a pair of tennis shoes are worn out or a kid’s backpack is falling apart. She sees it and not everybody’s looking.
“The kids, they may think that others are looking at them. Whether they are or not, if that perception is there, that effects how you react. Mrs. Whitson does a great job taking care of those kids as quietly and unassuming as possible so the kids don’t get added attention.”
The school also houses a food pantry for students who need those extra nutrients they might not be receiving elsewhere. There’s a supply of socks, shoes, pants and other clothes waiting in the wings for any kids who might need such items. The school even provides food bags throughout the year and food boxes full of kid-friendly, readily available food for students to take home with them over the weekend.
“We have a food pantry that we are constantly using,” Whitson said. “Most of my teachers will say every morning, ‘Who got their breakfast this morning? Who went to the cafeteria?’ And we have granola bars and boxes of cereal the kids can snack on because several of our kids don’t go home and eat. It’s just what they eat at school.”
“It’s all encompassing. The community is great to take care of the whole child and family,” Whitson said. “It’s not just an 8-3, Monday through Friday school year thing. It’s any time of the day, any day of the year. If there’s a need, we can find a way to get it.”
While items such as composition notebooks, pronged folders, scissors, expo markers and index cards are all on the list of donations needed for the Back To School Bash at West View, there’s one item Whitson says is usually the toughest to acquire.
“Backpacks. Backpacks are probably the hardest to get in because they are more expensive,” Whitson said. “But that’s really what we need, just a variety of size and age-appropriate backpacks because we’re kindergarten through eighth grade so that’s a big difference.”
Those at West View, like Whitson and Gamble, however, also want to offer these services in a careful way that is conducive to each family.
“(Hand outs) are not what we want and that’s not what the majority of our families want either,” Whitson explained. “There’s a lot of pride in people here. There’s a lot of minimum wage families and it just doesn’t make ends meet. But lots of these families cannot fathom the thought of asking for help. So that’s where it kind of comes into it being offered for everyone and it’s not just a ‘come pick up your stuff and be on your way.’ This is a family fun event.”
At West View, Gamble said they don’t just want to reach out to students; one of the many projects the West View Vols are involved in are community service projects that teach students to reach out and help those around them.
“We try to remind kids it’s not all about them. Each grade level has projects to work with different community organizations so that they can look beyond themselves and look beyond their school and know that there is a lot out there,” Gamble explained. “It might be to the animal shelter—they’ll take food and go and visit. It might be to the Crumley House to go sing and to go reach out as well. It gives them experiences that give them a chance to give back too.”
If you were to ask Whitson how an event like the Back to School Bash is able to happen, she’d most likely chalk it up to a supportive community. But if you ask her why an event like this is needed, she’d say it’s because of the idea of family.
“I guess it does come back to our school and our community is a family,” Whitson said. “And we want to continue that feel and that tradition of ‘You’re a West View Vol the rest of your life. If you ever need anything, you can go right back to that school and we’re going to help you in some form or fashion.’ Once you leave there, you still have a home I guess, no matter where you are. Our community just helps them and we support that idea of family.
That’s what she hopes to get across in the work that she and everyone at West View does throughout the year.
“I want them to know you might go into high school, you might transfer and go to another school, but if you ever need anything, you can come back to West View. You can call the school and we’re going to find a way to help you—because we are your family. No matter where you go or where you end up, we’re kind of the backbone.”
The Back to School Bash will be on Friday Aug. 4 at the school from 4 to 7 p.m. Donations are welcome by Wednesday, Aug. 2 and can be dropped off at West View Elementary School (2847 Old State Route 34, Limestone, Tennessee). For more information call (423)753-1175.