Religious, business and civic groups are banding together to launch a fourth annual school supplies drive so disadvantaged Howard County students can return to their classrooms Aug. 30 with new backpacks and other necessities.

Last year, about 1,350 students received backpacks filled with supplies through the effort, called Prepare for Success. This year, organizers hope to gather and fill 1,500 backpacks, said Mike Clark, coordinator for the Link at Christ Church, a Columbia-based social service organization. Clark is helping to lead the drive.

"For me it's a leap of faith," he said. "I have no idea how it happens, but it keeps on happening."

The 1,500 backpacks would be enough to help about a third of county students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches or whose families are experiencing hardships that would put the $40 cost of a backpack filled with supplies out of reach. Though some economic indicators are up, times are getting tougher for many people, said Linda Martin, a school system coordinator who is assisting with the effort.

"Our neediest students have even greater needs," Martin said in a written statement. "We turn to the community for help in meeting the students' needs."

Besides backpacks, organizers are seeking pens, pencils, highlighters, crayons, rulers, glue sticks, spiral notebooks, binders, notebook paper, pencil boxes and zippered supply pouches.

Donors and volunteers have responded generously in the past, organizers say. Businesses and religious groups have gathered supplies and raised funds. Some donors have sponsored specific schools. The sheriff's department has transported the donations from the collection sites to a central site where volunteers have prepared the backpacks for distribution.

"People really feel a connection," Clark said. "They feel that kids should have the tools they need to learn."

Drop-off boxes can be found in businesses and public buildings throughout the county, including branches of Columbia Bank, the offices of the Columbia Association, and Howard County government buildings and libraries. The supplies will be collected until Aug. 10. The donations will be transported to the Applications and Research Laboratory Building at 10920 Route 108 in Ellicott City. Volunteers who wish to sort the donations and fill the backpacks are invited to come to Room B37 and help from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Aug. 11 and 12.

Donors may also send checks, made out to Prepare for Success, to 6800 Oakland Mills Rd., Columbia, Md. 21045.

Backpacks and supplies earmarked for schools await delivery to students in the 2001 Prepare for Success effort.