Back-to-school helpers

Dan and Heather Simons deliver backpacks filled with school supplies to Halethorpe Elementary School. (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor / August 24, 2012)

Earlier this summer, Dan and Heather Simons started adding up the cost of school supplies for their son, who is entering first grade.

Glue stick, binder, crayons, lunch box — plus a backpack to carry everything — could easily run $20 to $30.

"As my wife and I reviewed the list, we got into a conversation of how expensive it can be for families that have multiple children and don't have the money to buy" supplies, said Dan Simons, 40.

But the Baltimore County husband and wife — both funeral directors at Hubbard Funeral Home — did more than just talk.

They contacted counselors at five county schools to see if they had families needing assistance with supplies. The schools did. On Friday, just in time for the first day of school, , the Simonses handed out 165 supply-filled backpacks to Arbutus, Catonsville, Halethorpe, Relay and Lansdowne elementary schools.

School begins today.

"The outpouring was phenomenal. They were overjoyed," said Heather Simons, 38, recalling conversations with the schools. She said the couple learned about homeless students in Baltimore County and generations of families living under the same roof to reduce expenses.

School counselors said they were grateful for the backpack donation.

"It's great for the kids. It takes all the pressure off them," said Susanne Olsen, a counselor at Arbutus Elementary School, which received 18 backpacks. Some students otherwise could have ended up trying to borrow items for school, she said.

"There are always kids, and as the school year progresses especially, that need supplies," she said. "They run out of things."

And one of the best things about going back to school, of course, is the fresh supply of pencils, erasers and notebooks.

"It's always nice to get new things," Olsen said.

Gina Vernier, a counselor at Halethorpe Elementary School, which received more than a dozen backpacks, said supply lists can be overwhelming.

"There are a lot of things to purchase," Vernier said, adding that the school highlights the most important items in case parents can't afford the entire list.

"Sometimes [students] have anxiety about coming to school. They come to school with only a couple of items," Vernier said — or sometimes with nothing at all.

Vernier said couple's gift is the most complete donation she has received as a counselor. That's because the donated supplies came organized by grades in backpacks.

Dan Simons said that, in total, the backpacks were filled with more than 6,700 items. Filling them took a couple of days, with help from others. The Simonses bought backpacks in different colors, too, so no one would be able to identify students receiving aid by the look of their bag.

"To them, it's important to blend in," Dan Simons said.

Heather Simons said she was inspired to undertake the project by her son's kindergarten teacher, who has paid out of pocket for snacks and supplies that pupils need. Simons said she hoped the backpack donation means teachers will be able to apply resources to other things that children need.

As the Simonses dropped off bags Friday at Halethorpe, they were pleased to see a parent stop by and leave with two backpacks.

The Simonses aren't done, though. Heather Simons said that next year they want to at least double their efforts by getting other businesses to contribute and by delivering backpacks to additional schools, including some in Baltimore City.

"The need is so great," Dan Simons said.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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