Howard County has a reputation of being one of the most affluent jurisdictions in the nation, but volunteers in a Columbia-based program say many families of public school students are struggling to make ends meet — particularly as their sons and daughters prepare to go back to school.
Prepare for Success, a program that operates as a partnership of the county schools and the Community Action Council of Howard County, is working to alleviate some of the burden by providing school supplies to children in need.
The organization is collecting items across the county through Aug. 17 and will prepare them for distribution before the start of school.
According to figures provided by the school system, more than 10,000 county students — one in five — rely on free or reduced-price meal programs. More than 500 are categorized as homeless — defined as lacking a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.
"Many of our friends in Howard County, they had no idea there were so many students that needed help," said Sue Appletree, who coordinates the program along with her husband, Roy.
"When we tell people [of students' needs], they're shocked," Roy Appletree said. "But what we love about Howard County people is that they're always willing to help out."
Prepare for Success has been soliciting donations of supplies and money for students since 2002. Since its inception, the group has equipped more than 26,000 elementary, middle and high school students with backpacks filled with supplies, from paper and composition notebooks to blunt scissors and binders.
Major contributors have included the Columbia Association, the Volunteer Center Serving Howard County, Columbia Village Associations and the Howard County Library.
The Appletrees, Columbia residents who have been married for 40 years, have been at the helm of the effort as volunteer co-coordinators since 2008.
Roy, 67, who had previously worked as an administrator for government organizations, said they decided to participate as an activity they could do together after retirement. Sue, 65, is a former teacher in Montgomery County's schools.
Prepare for Success runs year-round. For much of the time, volunteers are raising money for school supplies. The program also collects funds for job-training sessions for special-needs students at Cedar Lane School in Columbia.
"There's no overhead," Roy said. "One hundred percent of supplies and money go directly to helping the students."
Joan Fox, a spokeswoman for Howard County schools, said organizations such as Prepare for Success are crucial in helping students succeed.
"The community is changing rapidly, and we're getting growing numbers of families who are having financial difficulties," Fox said. "It's a real need for our students."
Prepare for Success works with a national education supplier that offers discounts to programs that aid students from low-income families. Each backpack filled with supplies amounts to $25 per student.
Donations can be made online through the Community Action Council website or by mailing a check. Details are available at prepareforsuccess.org.
Those wishing to donate supplies directly are asked to drop them off at one of the 30 locations, which include libraries, community centers and Columbia Association facilities. The list of sites, and a list supplies that are needed, are also posted on the website.
Items will be collected at dropoff points through Aug. 17, after which program volunteers will sort the items into backpacks for the students. Although there are about 50 volunteers in the program, many local residents — including high school sports teams — come to the center to help make sure everything is sorted and packed.
"We're lucky that we have a lot of folks that when they know there is a need, they want to help," Sue said. "Sometimes we don't even know what to do with all the volunteers we get."
The packages are sent off to school system officials, who distribute them to students before the school year starts. Other supplies collected are handed out throughout the year.
The students who receive the supplies are not identified for privacy reasons, but Fox said the families who get them experience a "tremendous source of relief."
"They are so, so grateful for what they can get," she said.