Four-year-old Michael Colson clutched the straps of his bright green backpack yesterday, proudly modeled it for his mother and vowed he would never take it off.
"He will probably sleep in it, he likes it so much," Chrystal Colson said of her youngest son, who will be a newcomer in the fall to the Head Start program in Westminster.
At an annual back-to-school giveaway at a county charity, Colson and her four children, ages 4 to 10, went shopping.
Shepherd's Staff, an ecumenical ministry to Carroll County's needy families, promised each child a backpack filled with school supplies and certificates for new shoes and a haircut, with whatever gently used clothing they wanted from the organization's closets. The charity equipped about 80 children in Head Start, a preschool program for low-income families, yesterday. Many of the younger set brought siblings for the shopping expedition.
"Mom, these match my feet," said Michael, plopping his foot down beside a pair of brown oxfords. "Can I have them?"
The Colson family has been without a permanent home since a house fire in the spring destroyed most of their furniture and clothing. While the landlord restores the Westminster house, the family of six has been living in a motel and, for the past two weeks, camping at a state park. A new outfit and supplies for the opening of school are beyond the possible, Chrystal Colson said.
"I can't afford anything for school," she said. "This program helps a lot."
Shepherd's Staff provided free supplies for more than 600 children, and that number probably will be exceeded this month, said Kathy Brown, director of the Westminster organization. She started the program about eight years ago, when she realized the working poor could use the help.
Donations the first year were from area Vacation Bible School classes. It has expanded every year, financed with grants and donations from churches, businesses and individuals. Brown has raised $10,000 for this school year's program, on top of gift certificates for shoes and haircuts and other in-kind donations.
At the center on Carroll Street near downtown, Brown has more than 600 book bags filled with binders, pens, pencils, paper and other supplies.
"Book bags alone would cost me about $30," said Christine Kerns, a mother of two, sorting through piles of clothing. "I have found a lot of things here that my kids can use."
Shepherd's Staff invites the families to browse in a shed filled with tons of donated clothing. Before the school program opened, volunteers culled donations to offer the children the "best of the best," Brown said.
"This is why we need a year-round clothing bank for families," she said. "Kids grow out of clothes quickly. The community donates good clothing, but I have no space to keep it."
The children also took advantage of the toys, games and books donated to the center. Michael left with a racing car.
"I got a box of cards, and they said I could keep them," said Jeffrey Kerns, 4, who found another game for his younger brother.
Dalton Spivey, 4, immediately changed into a nearly new Spiderman shirt. Vania Garcia, 4, showed off the Little Mermaid jumper that "my mom found for me here," she said. Haley Davis, 4, had several items in her favorite purple color.
Damon Dorsey, 9, demonstrated the hidden pockets of his cool binder for his three younger brothers.
"This program helps me with all the stuff I can't afford," said Damon's mother, Kim Abbott. "I have a full-time job, but it just doesn't cut it. If it wasn't for people like Shepherd's Staff, I couldn't do it."
Abbott, a single mother with four sons, said she makes use of the program only when she really needs to. "I don't take advantage because there are always others who need these services, too," she said. "My kids are grateful, too. They don't want to start school without the things they need."
Barb Matthews, family service supervisor at Head Start, which serves 119 preschool children at seven sites throughout the county, said the donations help with strained family budgets. The backpacks are essential for carrying extra clothing and for the "book bag express," a nickname for the communications between home and school.
Three brothers marched out of the Shepherd's Staff center yesterday, each wearing a different color backpack.
"I am going to wear mine home," said Isaih Pedraza, 4. "It's got all my stuff for school."
Brown said the brothers presented the kind of scene she loves to see.
"This is what this program is all about," she said. "Giving kids confidence, making them feel good about themselves."