by Tori Hamby

With each new school year usually comes fresh packs of newly sharpened pencils, blank composition books ready for a semester’s worth of notes and assignments to go into sturdy new book bags.

Many students from struggling families in the Charlotte and Lake Norman regions, however, won’t be so lucky when the year’s first school bell rings. Some local businesses and nonprofits are banding together to make sure each student begins the upcoming school year with the supplies he or she needs.

“We see students coming to school every year, of all ages, who do not have their own school supplies,” May Johnston, community relations director with Communities In Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. “For a parent who has three kids who are in school, it can be $300 or upward (to pay for school supplies) and that can just be out of reach for big families.”

Communities In Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, with help from WSOC-TV Channel 9 and Classroom Central, will hold its annual School Tools campaign throughout August. The school supplies collected from the drive will go to needy students in 22 counties, including Mecklenburg and Iredell.

Last year’s supply drive netted about 813,000 items, Sarah Porter, director of communications for Classroom Central, said.

“Last year was a record year for us,” Porter said. “But we looked at how long it took us to distribute the items and found that it took a little more than a month to collect them and a little less than six weeks to distribute them.”

So this year – to celebrate Classroom Central’s 10th birthday – School Tools organizers are aiming for more than one million items.

Classroom Central itself works as a kind of “supply bank” for six school districts: Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Iredell-Statesville, Union, Kannapolis, Gaston and Rock Hill. Teachers employed at schools where more than half the student body qualifies for free or reduced price lunches can “shop” at the store for free once a month.

Porter said the most needed items for the drive are book bags, pens, pencils, highlighters, markers, glue sticks, loose-leaf notebook paper, pocket folders, rulers and erasers.

“We need everything and anything that we all used as children when we were back in school,” Porter said. “Pencils don’t last very long and neither does a backpack.”

A Child’s Place, an organization that works to support Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ nearly 5,000 homeless students, will also hold a school supply drive until classes start Aug. 27. The school district’s homeless population has increased by 4.5 percent from last year’s estimate, according to a news release from the organization.

“Most of the time, these children are undergoing tremendous hardships before school even starts,” Annabelle Suddreth, A Child’s Place director, said in a statement. “We want to make their lives easier by providing them with school supplies and public school uniforms. This way, they can go to school and not have to worry about those things. They can focus on getting an education and making new friends.”

Want to get involved?

The School Tools campaign provides many ways for Lake Norman area residents to donate.

• Businesses or nonprofits can put together “mini-drives” and take donations to Classroom Central, 2116 Wilkinson Blvd., Charlotte, by Aug. 31.

• Drop off donations at any of WSOC-TV Channel 9’s Family Focus partner locations in Mecklenburg County during August: Ashley Furniture Home, Hendrick Honda, COIT Carpet and Air Duct Cleaners and Showmars Restaurants.

• Drop off donations at WSOC-TV Channel 9’s studio, 1901 N. Tryon St., on Aug. 8.

• Leave school supply donation bags at mailboxes for collection Aug. 18. U.S. Postal Service letter carriers will collect donations from homes in Lake Norman counties for free.

• Donate money to School Tools directly at www.wsoctv.com/s/school-tools.  Donors can designate the school district they want their money to go to through the website.

To support A Child’s Place’s school supply drive, drop off donations at the organization’s office, 601 E. Fifth St., Suite 230, Charlotte, between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. A Child’s Place also has a wish-list registry with www.Walmart.com and www.Target.com.