Back in 2000, the employees of the Illinois Department of Human Services office in Vandalia could not have imagined just how much their new community service program would be used in the coming years.
But, after just three years, they had a pretty good idea.
It was in August 2000 that the employees of the IDHS office initiated its Tools for School program, through which students in need could pick up basic school supplies.
Since then, that program – now headed up by a local church committee – has handed out supplies to about 10,000 area students.
And while this year’s distribution – set for Aug. 13-15 (See page 6 of this issue) – is different, with a drive-through format being used, what it provides for in-need students remains unchanged.
Tools for School is open to students in kindergarten through college in the Vandalia, Brownstown, St. Elmo, Ramsey and South Central school districts, as well as those students in area parochial schools and those who are homeschooled.
On average, the program has served 500 students each year, though Sally Miller, a member of the Tools for School committee, said they expect to serve more students this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Initially, the program provided basic supplies such as crayons, paint, scissors, pens, pencils, notebooks and paper.
Now, Miller said, the supplies given out include calculators, compasses, dry-erase markers, sanitizers, tissues.
Tools for School for many years also provided backpacks for students, but that aspect has been turned over to First Methodist Church, which gives backpacks through its Backpack 2 School program.
She said that three years after starting the program, when Tools for School had outgrown the space they had available, the IDHS employees approached the missions committee at First Presbyterian Church.
Those employees who approached the church committee included a member of that congregation, Joelyn Collins, who today is co-chairman of Tools for Schools with Dian Butler.
Other current committee members include Betty Greer, Barb McKellar, Michelle Sanders and Jill Diekroeger.
Those who have served as chairwomen in the past include Miller, Peg Ritter, Jodi Craycroft, Marsha Bundy and Becky Lambert.
The pastor of First Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Kurt Simon, has supported the program since its beginning, as have church secretaries, including Joan Langley, Marcie McCarty, Joni Springman and Debbie Brantley.
Retired teacher Sue Donaldson heads up the volunteer recruitment efforts, and Miller, also a former teacher, and Brantley lead the effort to get the word out about the program to area media.
“I can’t name all of the volunteers,” Miller said, estimating that it takes 50-60 of those helpers from throughout the area to operate the program each year.
“These men and women have faithfully given countless hours each year, and many of them are serving year after year,” she said.
Many of the volunteers are former teachers, and the workers include many from other area congregations, Miller said.
Tools for School is financed by donations from individuals, churches, businesses and organizations in the county, and Miller said that some funds also come from grants and foundations.
The volunteers, she said, “really like the part where we distribute the supplies to the kids.”
However, their contact with the kids will be quite limited, due to the pandemic.
This year, volunteers will be in the First Presbyterian parking lot to direct parents to the pickup point, with other volunteers putting supplies in the parents’ vehicles.
“They (volunteers) probably won’t enjoy it as much this year, but I hope they realize that, hopefully, this is a one-time thing,” Miller said.
“I hope we don’t have to do this every year,” Miller said, “because the fun part has been getting to be with the kids, and the thanks we get from them and their parents – that part has been really wonderful.
“But, unfortunately, we can’t do it that way this year.
“So, we’ll try it this other way this year, and the kids will still get their supplies, which is the most important thing about this program,” Miller said.