Help Me Learn Day

Aaron Cephus, an employee at the Chagrin Falls Park Community Center in Bainbridge, hands out backpacks at the annual Help Me Learn Day last week.

Hundreds of children had the opportunity Friday to pick out school supplies for the new school year. Their favorite item? Backpacks, said volunteers who passed out the supplies at Chagrin Falls Park Community Center in Bainbridge and at the Geauga County Department of Job and Family Services facility in Chardon.

It was an opportunity for the children to take home notebooks, pencils and crayons in preparation of the new school year.

Craig Swenson, executive director of Job and Family Services, said the distribution was also held at the Morning Star Friends Church in Chardon.

Low-income families register in advance for the event that has been held for 13 years now, he said. The supplies and funds are donated by individuals, churches, businesses and civic organizations.

Sara Shininger, community support coordinator at Job and Family Services, said the families sign up for the event at Chagrin Falls Park Community Center or at Job and Family Services ahead of time.

At the community center’s gymnasium last week, volunteers were busy helping the children pick out what they needed from the lists they brought to the event. When the volunteers, mostly young people, were not handing out items, some of them played basketball in the gym.

“Kids come in with an adult and with their lists and the volunteers help them,” Mrs. Shininger said.

Students from Kenston High School worked at the event, helping to pass out the supplies, as they have for several years. Some are from the school’s sport teams.

Kenston High graduate Andrew Britten, 18, who is training to be a paramedic, has helped children select school supplies for the last three years. “I think it’s a good opportunity to help out the community. The school supplies are expensive,” he said of the clothing, books and backpacks that are needed for school.

Children were most excited to choose a backpack from the 400 or so available, he said.

Keeshaun Merrill is also a Kenston High School graduate. He has worked at the community center’s summer camp each weekday and was volunteering at the Help Me Learn Day. “The kids like everything and it’s all free,” he said.

Volunteer Monaya Stanley, a Kenston High School graduate and now a Bowling Green State University student, said she attended summer camp at the community center when she was a child and received school supplies as well. To see the children’s faces as they collected their school supplies, “brightened my day. It makes me feel good inside,” she said.

The event serves students in grades kindergarten through 12th grade. College students came in after 2 p.m. for supplies.

School supplies have changed over the years, Mrs. Shininger noted. “Schools are going a little more paperless. Headphones, ear buds and other electronics are needed but they are also the most expensive,” she said.

Crayons, marking pens, notebooks and glue, however, are still on the lists along with the backpacks. Numerous churches donated more than 200 backpacks, Mrs. Shininger said. “The generosity is incredible.

“We did this at the community center and at Job and Family Services and not one penny of taxpayers’ money was used. It was the community working together,” Mrs. Shininger said. “It is incredible.”

She noted how Chagrin Falls resident Ruth Carlton, now retired from Job and Family Services, started the Help Me Learn Day event. She would collect donations and put them in the backpacks and pass them out.

Mrs. Shininger took on the program and wanted to make it an event for kids to get engaged and excited about going back to school. “I just wanted to make it fun for them,” she said. It has morphed into an event where the children can now pick out what they need. She uses the monetary donations to go shopping for the event.

“We partnered with Morning Star Friends Church and for several years they have provided space where we can offer free haircuts,” she said. Barbers and hairstylists volunteer their time and talents. A mobile dental unit from University Hospitals of Cleveland was on hand.

Two optometrists volunteered time for eye exams. The Chardon Rotary pays for any glasses that are needed by the children.

The church sanctuary was converted to a clothes store as well and families are given vouchers to collect clothing needed. The clothes are gently used and the socks and underwear are all new.

Next year, they hope to find barbers and hair stylists in the Chagrin Valley area willing to donate their time as well, Mrs. Shininger said. “We’d definitely love to do haircuts here,” she said.

Bainbridge resident Brit Gardner, a center volunteer, said “Help Me Learn Day is amazing.”

South Russell resident Diana Rop, a volunteer coordinator at the center, noted, “This is a real big help for people who can’t afford school supplies.”

Mrs. Shininger pointed to a notebook where the families write thank-you notes to everyone who helped. “It’s incredible how grateful they are.”

One parent wrote that it is the third year her family has participated and if it was not for the program, going back to school would be stressful, heart breaking and embarrassing. “Thank you for making our lives better,” she said.

Another family wrote, “We are so blessed to receive these needed supplies for our children. We can’t tell you how much we appreciate the thoughtfulness. God bless you.”

One child wrote, “Thank you for all the great stuff.”

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