Two decades ago, Susan Ungerer was volunteering at a Fairfax County nonprofit group that helps financially strapped families when she noticed a pattern: Parents tended to fall behind with their finances in August and September, just when they had to buy school supplies for their children.
That realization, combined with 23 years of experience as an elementary school teacher, motivated Ungerer to start Kids R First, a nonprofit group that provides basic school supplies to families in need. The organization has been growing ever since. This year, Ungerer anticipates that Kids R First will help 25,000 students in 96 schools across Fairfax and Loudoun counties.
Ungerer, 72, of Reston, said that she used to help out her students at Terraset Elementary in Reston when their parents could not afford basic supplies, but not all teachers could afford to do that.
After retiring in 1995, Ungerer began volunteering as a family assistance worker with Herndon-Reston FISH, where she got a closer look at the financial struggles of impoverished families.
“You would always ask [the people seeking assistance], ‘What happened? What caused you to get behind in your payments?’ And they said, ‘We were just trying to help our kids with school supplies,’ ” Ungerer said.
“When you’ve got a family that is living paycheck-to-paycheck, and they’ve got three or four kids, that can be $80 or $100 along with the other school fees at the beginning of the year,” said Virginia Minshew, a retired Loudoun County educator who volunteers for Kids R First.
Ungerer started Kids R First in her garage, using seed money from Herndon-Reston Fish. The first year, she was able to provide 450 students from four elementary schools in Herndon and Reston with basic school supplies such as paper, pens, crayons, notebooks and glue sticks.
“It was so successful that teachers in other schools said, ‘We hope you’ll do it again,’ ” Ungerer said.
The organization added more schools every year. By 1999, when Kids R First became a standalone nonprofit group, it was serving 2,000 students. Now it helps students at elementary, middle and high schools in an area stretching from Purcellville to Alexandria, spanning two counties that rank among the most affluent in the nation.
“I think people would be surprised at the amount of need, particularly when you look at Fairfax and Loudoun counties,” said Minshew, who served for nine years as principal of Park View High School in Sterling. “But there are pockets of high need.”
Ungerer said that about 28 percent of students in Fairfax County receive free or reduced- price meals, an indicator of financial need. At some schools, the percentage is much higher — as high as 94 percent, she said.
Kids R First is able to get discounted prices on school supplies through bulk purchases from retailers such as Wal-Mart and Office Depot, Ungerer said.
Last week, trucks filled with supplies pulled up to Langston Hughes Middle School in Reston, where the school cafeteria was transformed into a temporary warehouse. Members of the Park View High School football team formed an assembly line, catching boxes from the truck, tossing them down the line and piling them in tall stacks in the cafeteria.
From there, the supplies will be delivered to the schools, which already have compiled lists of students and their specific needs, Ungerer said. Most of the students will receive the supplies they need by the time school starts, she said.
Kids R First is an all-volunteer organization, with no paid staff, so “98.6 percent of every dollar donated goes back to help the kids,” Ungerer said. For every dollar donated, she said, the group is able to purchase supplies worth four dollars.
Ungerer said she is looking for major corporate sponsors, “someone to take us to the next level.” She has her sights set far beyond Northern Virginia.
“We want to take this statewide,” she said. “And if it works successfully, which I’m sure it will, we are looking to take it nationally.”
Barnes is a freelance writer.