The school season for Taos students is now well underway, and with that comes the need for school supplies, such as pens, pencils, notebooks and backpacks.
This year, five separate community efforts helped provide over 1,400 backpacks, most filled with school supplies, to Taos students in need.
St. James Episcopal Church Youth Minister Jill Cline headed up one such effort. She said it is the second year St. James has pushed to get backpacks out to students living under the poverty line. Together with eight other community partners — The LOR Foundation, Taos Community Foundation, Sin Fronteras, Taos Immigrant Allies, Taos Behavioral Health, the Town of Taos, the Taos News, Western Sky Community Care “and a whole lot of community individuals” — St. James managed to distribute 449 backpacks to students in Taos, Mora and Ojo Caliente.
Cline said the church accepted references from the community groups and decided they needed a total of 338 full backpacks to address the need. This was before groups began signing up more individuals than Cline accounted for, and before 32 more families arrived in front of St. James in person to receive the gifted backpacks.
“On the Thursday before we did this distribution, the list had exploded to 408 registrations,” Cline said. “I had to send out a note to everybody going: ‘Stop registering!’”
Luckily, Western Sky Community Care had leftover backpacks from a separate effort, and were able to donate 84 packs to Cline’s effort, she said.
Along with the efforts by Cline and Western Sky, two other drives helped to meet the community’s need for backpacks. Taos Pueblo gave away nearly 400 filled backpacks to their tribal members, and New Beginnings Church gave away 300 backpacks along with Polo shirts for public school students. Florence Miera, with Taos Municipal Schools, also secured 50 backpacks for homeless students.
“When we look at that number [of backpacks given] compared to 4,200 kids at a county-wide level that are in school, we're looking at the third of our population that live at or below the poverty level,” Cline said.
Sonya Struck, the Taos community officer for The LOR Foundation, said the organization provided $4,000 to help Cline purchase the needed supplies. “One thing I really appreciated about supporting St. James’ efforts — because I know there's like just a lot of different efforts in and around town — is that they get to the level of specificity around the exact supply list per grade,” said Struck, noting that the backpacks were filled based on the needs of students in elementary school and high school.
“Collectively, we're learning how to be very specific with the school distribution so that we’re getting the things that are needed and the number,” Struck added. “We're all just trying to figure out where we can help contribute in a really effective way.”
Kevin Miller, pastor at New Beginnings Church in Taos, said they have been providing Polo shirts for students in Taos for the past several years after finding out a solid-colored polo was a part of the dress code. In 2021, Miller said the church gave away around 200 polos and 200 backpacks. This year, they managed to provide approximately 300 polos and 400 backpacks.
Miller said they provided a backpack for anyone that needed one. “We decided that we didn't want to limit who our reach was for, so we decided we wanted to help anybody who needed something,” he said. “When you see the kids' faces when they get a nice backpack, it's so neat to see how happy they are, and the difference that you make.”
Miller agreed with Cline that the need for this kind of outreach is growing. “It doesn't matter how much I can do, there's always more need,” he said. “Until we can meet the need for everybody, there's still a job for all of us to do.”
Cline said she thinks that the effort she has organized with other community groups can become an official event, and even hopes they can combine efforts when it comes to winter holiday toy drives.
“We've done this two years in a row. We're successful at getting it done collaboratively and we're successful at collecting shared information across agencies,” she explained. “We also know that these particular agencies will be doing the exact same thing for an almost identical mix of clients when it comes to Christmas or holiday gifts, so we're going to formalize and we're going to make this an annual project that covers back-to-school and holiday time collectively, so that we can really share some efforts to make sure that we're meeting these two really specific needs.”