After her husband died, Barbara Austin said she couldn't afford school supplies for her son and stepson.
She looked for deals in the weekly advertisements, but rarely found items that were affordable, she said. So when the Westminster resident heard about a program that gives out free school supplies, she signed up.
"I'm low on money, so there are some things that I just can't do right now," said Austin, who lives on Social Security benefits. "If this program didn't exist, my kids wouldn't get some of the things they need for school."
The back-to-school program is one of several sponsored by The Shepherd's Staff - a nonprofit Christian outreach program that was started in 1989 in Westminster.
To participate, parents must register their children in preschool through 12th grade, between June 11 and July 27. Then in August, each registered child receives a kit that contains school supplies, a backpack, a voucher for a pair of shoes, and in some cases, nearly new clothing.
With a record number of families registered this year, about 851 students from the county will benefit from the initiative, said Kathy Brown, the director of Shepherd's Staff for the past 16 years.
Although Brown never turns families away, she said she has less than half the backpacks needed.
"We have the school supplies that we need, but we only have about 400 of the 851 backpacks we are committed to provide," Brown said. "We desperately need backpacks or money to buy some. We've made a pledge to the parents that their children will get a backpack, so we have to come up with them."
Solely dependent on private donations, the program was created to help parents with rising back-to-school costs, Brown said. Since its inception, the program has grown each year, Brown said.
"New families are moving into the area, and they need help," Brown said. "The growing need for our help reflects the needs in the communities."
Although there aren't any income requirements for the program, registration is requested, Brown said.
"We need to know how many of each item we need to fill everyone's requests," she said. "Sometimes, we get people who sign up at the last minute, and we just give them what we have."
On a recent afternoon, several volunteers worked on the school kits and talked about the program.
Ronda Robinson and Elizabeth O'Neill secured bundles of pens and pencils with rubber bands. In an adjacent room, Ben Prueser, Rebekah Houff and Jeremiah Irizarry created kits filled with binders, folders, wide-ruled paper, pens, pencils, glue and scissors.
Robinson, who has helped for the last six years, said the project brings joy to the children.
"When the children come to pick up their new school supplies, they get such a big smile on their faces," said Robinson, a retired schoolteacher. "It's such a wonderful thing to see."
O'Neill, a junior at South Carroll High School, said she was fulfilling her service obligation.
"Of all the things I heard about that I could do, this is the one that gave me the best feeling," said O'Neill, 15, of Westminster, as she wrapped rubber bands around pens.
Prueser was fulfilling a similar obligation, he said. As a resident of Luebeck, Germany, the 21-year-old has to serve in the military or do an alternative service, he said.
He selected a year abroad in the United States where he will work in conjunction with a program sponsored by the Church of the Brethren. In the Church of the Brethren program, volunteers work for a year on various charitable projects, he said.
He worked at Shepherd's Staff for a day before leaving for his permanent assignment, he said.
"When I heard about this project, I thought it sounded great," he said. "This program helps give all children with less financial opportunities the same start on the first day of school."
Although they only spent a day at Shepherd's Staff, the program leaves a lasting impression, said Houff, 23, of Bethel, Pa.
"When you realize what this stuff means to people, you want to make sure they get it," Houff said. "People will bring in something like a bag of rulers and we get excited, because that's all we needed to finish the kits."
Outside the building, Richard Gourley organized clothing in a wooden shed. Gourley, a mechanic at General Motors, has worked at Shepherd's Staff since May, he said.
He created a wooden schoolhouse that is set up at the TownMall of Westminster, where people can leave donations for the program, he said.
"I think this is a fantastic program, and a great cause," said Gourley, 48, of Westminster. "When I heard about it, I wanted to do something to help out."
Austin recalled the first time she came to pick up school supplies for her boys. The generosity of The Shepherd's Staff gave her hope, she said.
"They fill the backpack with almost everything the kids need for school," she said. "It was the difference between my kids not having what they need and having it.
"Things are getting harder for me all the time. And there are more and more people like me," Austin said. "We just need help getting through a tough spot. Right now I need help, but I hope that some day I'll be able to repay a little bit of what's been given to me."
To donate school supplies, go to the Little Red Schoolhouse in the TownMall of Westminster or make a monetary donation at the Shepherd's Staff headquarters, 30 Carroll St., Westminster.