POLISHING OFF 'APPLES' Giant's program for computers in schools nears end.


Thom Snyder, 11, perished along the Oregon Trail yesterday -- another innocent victim of Giant Food Inc.'s "Apples for the Students" program.

"I died of a broken leg and the measles," the Perry Hall Elementary School fifth-grader said after his computerized demise. "The pain and the agony!"

Thom "died" after 11-year-old classmates Amanda Rumsley and Laurie Risner entered his name into the Baltimore County school's Oregon Trail computer program, which simulates a danger-filled 19th century pioneer trek from Missouri to the Pacific Northwest. The colorful, interactive program teaches students about history, geography and decision-making -- not to mention the wisdom of avoiding rattlesnakes.

While Amanda and Laurie were gleefully squandering his young life, Thom and his partner, 10-year-old Louis Brown, were busy writing their own video game program on one of the six computers Perry Hall Elementary has received from Giant.

"We'd like to have this big eyeball in the middle" of the screen, said Louis, who was honing his math skills while working on his and Thom's creepy creation.

Giant's praised "Apples for the Students" program, which has been providing computers and other educational equipment to mid-Atlantic schools the past three years, is winding down. Tomorrow will be the last day Giant cash registers will spew forth the green receipts thousands of area youngsters have collected for their schools, which have used them to "buy" equipment their cash-strapped budgets could not provide.

"Like any promotion, you've got to have a beginning and an end," said Barry F. Scher, the Landover-based company's vice president of public affairs. The schools have until March 14 to mail in their last receipts and March 28 to send in orders.

By the time final orders are shipped later this spring, Giant will have provided some $20 million worth of equipment to 2,500 schools in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, Mr. Scher said. Precise totals won't be known until May, he said, but in the first two years about 30,000 printers, software packages and IBM and Apple computers were given away.

For $110,000 in receipts, a school can get an Apple IIe color computer; another $7,000 bought the Oregon Trail software program. After two years, Giant's program was expanded to include athletic and scientific equipment, musical instruments, encyclopedias and other items.

Giant has long been involved in educational causes. For 26 years it has been a sponsor of the television program "It's Academic," awarding $1.7 million in scholarships. But "Apples for the Students" far eclipses that, becoming one of the most successful corporate philanthropy programs in Maryland in recent years.

"We've always liked to put something back into the communities that have supported us," said Mr. Scher.

The idea for "Apples for the Students" did not originate with Giant but was the brainchild of Service Marketing Group, a grocery marketing firm in Pittsburgh that syndicated the concept among regional grocery chains around the country.

Peter Jarvis, president of Service Marketing, said Giant did an excellent job of putting the program into effect -- even coming up with refinements his company then adopted and used in other markets.

"They do things better than most. Their follow-through, their push -- they make sure everything works perfectly," he said.

Mr. Jarvis said the program is not just good deeds, it's good business.

"It's a good way to spend your PR dollars," he said. "There's something to putting something back into the community that's going to have some long-term, intangible benefits."

Educators, not surprisingly, are enthusiastic about the program. "It has really helped us out an awful lot," said Beverly German, principal of Perry Hall Elementary, where about half the school's educational computers were provided through the program. Without Giant's contribution, said fifth-grade teacher Cecilia Silva, "it would be really difficult" to teach Baltimore County's computer curriculum.

If there is one complaint, it's that the program's impact is least where the need is greatest. For instance, Centennial Elementary School, in an affluent part of Howard County, brought in $758,629 in receipts and bought six computers over the first two years of the program. Dunbar Senior High School in Baltimore collected $50,005 in tapes.

"How many Giant stores are located in the inner city?" Dunbar Principal Elzee C. Gladden asked rhetorically. He said that his school had not collected enough tapes to buy a computer but that it had been able to acquire some software.

Audrey L. Eusaw, Giant's marketing projects manager, said that the company was aware of the problem and that it had tried to reach schools in low-income neighborhoods by recruiting other companies to take part in an "Adopt-a-School" program. But only 300 of 7,000 firms contacted got involved.

"You'd like more than that," said Kevin J. Hancock, Giant's director of media advertising.

Mr. Scher said Giant learned a lot from the program -- mostly about how great the needs of schools are. "They're all having difficulties -- public and private schools," he said.

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