Colored backpacks lined the lawn beside the Villa Therese Catholic Clinic Thursday morning, like rows of potted plants. Children and their parents stopped off at the check-in table for a quick bit of paperwork, then the kids ran to get their backpack, filled with school supplies they'll need for the coming year.
This is the 14th year of the Villa Therese "Pack to School" program. This year they provided 170 children in grades K through six with brand new backpacks, school supplies for their grade, and a $50 gift certificate from JC Penney for school uniforms, shoes or other school-related items.
The project is run by clinic board members and other volunteers. Families whose children attend the clinic were invited in the spring to fill out an application for a backpack. The board had a budget this year of about $15,000 this year - with contributions from individuals, a LANL foundation grant, and a generous anonymous donor. The cost for the backpack, supplies and gift card averages about $85.
"We do a lot of shopping around for best prices," explained Darlene Otero, Pack-to-School's chairperson. A manager at Staples helped them find high-quality, low-cost items. A donor contributed about 30 new backpacks, and they purchased the rest. Volunteers spent a day earlier this week organizing all the items, sorting them according to the lists of supplies required for each grade by the Santa Fe Public Schools. They spent the next day stuffing the backpacks, then early Thursday morning, they toted all the backpacks outside ("They're kind of heavy, the ones for older kids!" said executive director Joann V. Salazar) and arranged them by grade on the lawn in the clinic's courtyard.
Pick-up day had a celebratory air, with fresh fruit and bottled water for the kids and parents. Two stylists from Illusions Hair Salon gave children haircuts for the new school year. Volunteers matched the number on each child's form with the backpack assigned to them, and the kids went to get their new stuff.
Two brothers, James Anthony Martinez, Jr., 8, and José Santiago Martinez, 6, arrived in matching SpongeBob SquarePants t-shirts. Both boys will attend Sweeney Elementary School this year - James in second grade, José in first. Board member Yolanda Levey helped the boys find their backpacks and adjust the straps.
José is missing his front teeth, so when he smiles he looks a bit like SpongeBob's face on his t-shirt. But there's nothing cartoonish about the brothers' excitement for their backpacks and supplies. The clinic created the program, a flyer states, "as a means to encourage enthusiasm in education for the children." It shows.
Angelica Martinez, who will start third grade this fall at Kearney Elementary, smiled as she opened her backpack and inspected the contents - glue sticks, spiral notebooks, pencils, crayons, zipper bags, paper, Kleenex, a pencil holder, and her favorite - a thick, white binder. "I'll put paper in here to do my schoolwork," she said, showing where she'll put sections for each subject. Her favorite? Math.
The Villa Therese, on the grounds of the St. Francis Cathedral downtown, provides primary health care for children, including well and sick child care, immunizations, sports physicals, medical assessments and orthodontic screenings, and other services for adults and children including eye exams, dental extractions and podiatry.
"We want to maintain our mission and be the safety net in our community," Salazar said. They target Santa Fe's uninsured, under-insured, and those with a temporary gap in coverage, and families in crisis, regardless of citizenship. All services are completely free to the patient, although donations are welcomed, provided by a posse of doctors, nurses, physician assistants, lab techs, dentists, eye doctors and others who volunteer their services.
Pack-to-School is their most non-medical program but a crucial one for helping children start the year with the supplies - and enthusiasm - that will help them get the most out of school.
Although they've finished distributing backpacks this year, they accept donations throughout the year. Your donation now, to Villa Therese Catholic Clinic, 219 Cathedral Place, Santa Fe, NM 87501, will go into a fund for next year's program. Designate "Pack to School" on your check to support this program, though the clinic gratefully accepts money, goods and services to keep the clinic operating.