www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/howard/laurel/ph-ll-back-to-school-budget-0815-20130815,0,2491037.story

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Laurel groups step up when back-to-school stretches family budgets

For some families, gearing up for school year pinches already tight budgets

By Sara Toth, stoth@tribune.com

9:31 AM EDT, August 15, 2013

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With the first day of school just around the corner, shoppers across the country are expected to spend $26.7 billion in back-to-school shopping this year — an average of $634.78 per family, according to the National Retail Federation.

But not every family is able to shell out the big bucks this season, with the lingering effects of a bad economy and money still being stretched tight. To meet the needs of those students, several organizations in the Laurel area are holding back-to-school donation drives for a need they say is just not going away.

"It could be an immediate crisis, or an ongoing thing (that brings people to us)," said Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services Program Coordinator Laura Wellford. "The economy is definitely an issue. … There's definitely a need out there."

Wellford said this back-to-school season, LARS has assisted about 30 families and 60 students in getting school supplies. That's about the same number as they help every year, Wellford said, but this year "supplies have been getting really low." LARS has been referring clients to the Multiservice Center in North Laurel and the Back-To-School Fair Prince George's County Public Schools held on Saturday, Aug. 10.

Fortunately, there are numerous collection drives from which those who are in need can choose.

Chief among those locally is the Back to School Summer Jam, set for Aug. 24, from 3 to 6 p.m., at Granville Gude Park at Laurel Lakes. A partnership between the city of Laurel, the Laurel Board of Trade, 98.6 Sound, and Winning in Sports and Education [WISE], the afternoon will include free school bags and school supplies, as well as live bands, a disc jockey and other entertainment. City Council President Fred Smalls, who is organizing the event, said the entertainment helps make the occasion just as much about the community as it is about helping students get the supplies that they need.

The donation drive and event are both new this year, Smalls said, and the city is planning to give away 500 nylon bags with straps filled with supplies to students who are city residents. The school bags were provided by Prince George's County District 1 school board member Zabrina Epps, who lives in Laurel, and the city is collecting donations of school supplies in a box in the lobby of the Laurel Municipal Center.

"We just want to give our kids a jump start on the school year by helping them with their supplies, particularly the families that may have had some challenges," Smalls said.

Smalls knows first-hand how the back-to-school supply lists, usually provided by the school, have changed over the years. He just finished back-to-school shopping with his grandchildren and has noticed the lists seem to get longer every year.

"It's a long list of items," he said. "When you have more than one kid, it can tend to get pretty costly. And in this age of technology, teachers are asking that the kids have jump drives, reams of paper for the printer, as well as the pens, pencils, crayons, notebooks. It's a whole laundry list that grows every year."

5,000 backpacks

When Prince George's County Public Schools held its third annual Back-to-School Fair at the Showplace Arena in Upper Marlboro on Saturday, it attracted a crowd of more than 7,000.

The primary purpose of the fair, according to schools officials, was to help parents learn about school resources and to help students get ready for the new school year. A big part of the help for students came in the way of free backpacks and school supplies.

A line wrapped around the building as hundreds of parents and children waited for doors to open at 10 a.m. According to Max Pugh, acting director of communications for county schools, the county gave away more than 5,000 backpacks stuffed with supplies such as binders, pencils and pens, glue sticks, notebook paper, rulers, and scissors.

"Providing school supplies to families is always a good draw," said Pugh, who estimated this year's fair saw about 1,000 more people than last year's. "We want to make sure students have the supplies they need."

Not all the back-to-school supply drives are sponsored by large organizations. In Laurel resident Denise Woody's case, it's literally a one-woman operation as she spends the year purchasing school supplies on clearance and giving them to students who need them the most. Sometimes, that means buying a box of paper folders for a nickel or a package of paper for a penny ("Paper doesn't go bad," she said) but it always means stockpiling for the back-to-school season when she opens her home to families to get what they need. Woody had collected about 1,500 bags of school supplies for her back-to-school giveaway held Saturday.

"This is just something God has put in my life," said Woody, 52, who has been giving away school supplies for 22 years. "When I was young, I didn't have (money or school supplies), and I wanted to reach out and give back to the kids. My heart goes out to them."

The lines outside her house on South Armory Lane on giveaway days have been so long "it made me want to cry," Woody said.

Tax holiday

Beyond school supplies, back-to-school clothes shopping can also be a difficult task for struggling families. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's Monthly Retail Trade and Food Services Report for August 2012, $8.5 billion was spent at family clothing stores. That was up from $7.7 billion the year prior.

In Laurel, all Prince George's County schools except Bond Mill Elementary have adopted a mandatory school uniform, usually khaki slacks or skirts and a solid-color polo shirt. Discount stores such as Target and Walmart carry school uniform items, and the prices are not out of the ordinary. But parents can face fitting new clothes back into their late-summer budget if they are purchasing the mandatory attire to meet school requirements by the first day of school.

To alleviate some of the burden of clothes shopping, and to bolster the economy statewide, the week of Aug. 11 to Aug. 17 was declared Maryland Tax-Free Week, when clothing purchases less than $100 do not carry the state's 6 percent sales tax. In a news release announcing the sales tax holiday, Maryland Retailers Association President Patrick Donoho said Tax-Free Week is one of the strongest sales seasons after Christmas.

"Shoppers have become much savvier during these economic tough times," he said. "They expect competitive pricing, while also looking for added value in service, convenience and the whole shopping experience."

Melanie Dzwonchyk contributed to this story.