Wednesday, July 21, 2021

How School Supplies Impacts Students' Lives


Schools should be places where children feel safe, empowered, and equal -- an environment where a student’s background or home life need not determine their success or belonging. However, this kind of equitable environment is not a given in the classroom. Issues with school supplies are a significant barrier to a healthy school experience for many children.

The national average of what parents spend on school supplies per child is $696.70, with many asked to pay far higher amounts. While some families don’t think twice about the yearly routine of  rounding up binders, calculators, pencils, and pens, the cost of these items can be overwhelming for low-income parents who may need to weigh school supplies against absolute necessities, such as groceries and rent. As a result, many children do not have the option to follow these prescribed lists of supplies and come to school less prepared than their classmates. 

These students face a difficult social situation. Gail O’Connor with Teach for America writes that “teachers are in a unique position to either add to a student’s feelings of inadequacy, or be sensitive to the mental burden that comes from financial insecurity.” Upon seeing students unprepared, teachers sometimes lean towards the former. They may be less than understanding, failing to consider possible financial issues and accusing students of being forgetful or careless. “It’s often seen as a behavioral issue,” Dr. Heather Clawson from Communities in Schools reports. Such assumptions can set students up for a negative relationship with teachers, producing feelings of shame and alienation. This negatively impacts the student’s ability to learn. 

Conversely, teachers who do recognize the student’s situation often buy school supplies for them out-of-pocket -- which isn’t sustainable for those teachers who are often already underpaid. O’Connor writes, “ninety-three percent of public school teachers spend their own money on school supplies without reimbursement, and on average, teachers spend $479 on items for their classrooms.” While teachers who go above and beyond in this manner should be applauded, it is unfair for the burden to be set upon them.

Many teachers note how the lack of school supplies negatively impacts their students. One teacher, Mario Black, reported of his own students, “When scholars don’t have what is needed for school, they don’t give it their all.” (WSOC)

But beyond the negative impacts of not being prepared with adequate supplies, it is deeply empowering when students are prepared. 

If you had the chance to start each school year with new supplies, you may remember how exciting it felt to look through the different colors of your binders and carefully assign colors to school subjects, or the satisfaction of pulling out cleanly sharpened pencils as you learned how to take notes. In the turbulence of starting a new school year, the prevalent feeling was that of a fresh start, and some control. 

And the data confirms these memories -- teachers have reported in studies that students having their own school supplies seems to increase students’ self esteem, class participation, class preparedness and interest in learning. (Kids in Need Foundation) 

At Bergen Volunteers, we want to make sure children in our community are prepared to do their best -- and feel their best -- in school. That’s why we run Tools for Schools, our program focused on providing school supplies for students in northern New Jersey. We invite businesses and individuals to donate to our annual drive, which this year runs from July 22 to August 31. Then, we distribute the supplies to our agency members -- hand-selected organizations that we have history with, and pool volunteer resources with -- who pass the supplies directly on to schools and students! 

If you’re ready to get involved in this important mission, contact Melissa LaRobardier at We need your help to ensure that more and more children can enter their school year confidently, with the tools they need for success. 

“School Supply Donations Have a Positive Impact on Student's Ability to Learn.” WSOC TV, WSOC TV, 24 Nov. 2019, 

O’Connor, Gail, et al. “The School-Supply Gap.” Teach For America, Teach For America, 8 Sept. 2019, 

“Why It Matters.” Kids In Need Foundation, 19 Apr. 2021, 

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Don’t Throw Away Your Shot

Caheri & Tammy Cloud, Intervention Specialist with Caught in the Crossfire

L to R - Cloud and Gutierrez (

Caheri didn’t even realize she had been hit when the bullet burst through her jaw.

An 18-year-old model from one of Oakland, California’s most unsafe neighborhoods, Caheri Gutierrez was shot in a drive-by while sitting in the passenger seat at the intersection of 98th Ave and San Leandro Street in November of 2008. She felt a shock but didn’t realize the damage done until she noticed the driver’s expression and reached to touch her face: it was effectively blown off. Her biggest asset for her up-and-coming modeling career was gone. 


Gutierrez stayed strong and survived through the night, waking up to find herself toothless, jawless, and deaf in one ear. After almost a month in the hospital, she returned home to East Oakland and struggled with severe nightmares, fear of her neighborhood, and growing resentment and grief for her former identity.


Soon enough, Tammy Cloud was assigned to Gutierrez’s case. Cloud worked as an Intervention Specialist in the Caught in the Crossfire program as part of Youth ALIVE!, an Oakland non-profit whose mission is to prevent urban violence and cultivate young leaders. Cloud provided emotional and practical support to victims of Oakland’s violence.


At first, Gutierrez did not want assistance, not realizing how difficult it would be to handle her emotions. But Cloud stuck by her side during her recuperation, helping her to graduate high school, start therapy, take college classes, and regain her academic and athletic strengths. Gutierrez was eternally grateful and described Cloud as her “guardian angel.” Cloud began to see an internal strength developing in Gutierrez, a power she could use for the greater good. She suggested Gutierrez speak to the youth from her community, so Gutierrez applied for and accepted a job at Youth ALIVE!, working for their Teens on Target (TNT) program, where she could share her story and confront her trauma in a new way. 


Gutierrez bravely returned to Oakland, but she was afraid she would frighten the children with her story and physical scars. However, not only were the TNT students drawn to her warm personality, but they were also enlightened by her experience, as they too were growing up under the cloud of violence in East Oakland. Gutierrez went on to initiate many necessary conversations of how to cope with and avoid a life of violence even if it’s all one has ever known (O’Brien).


With the help of Youth ALIVE! and the support of her community, Gutierrez established herself as an effective speaker and community leader who took steps to prevent incidents like hers from happening again. 


We are born from our experiences; they shape us into who we are, fostering our passions, character, and capabilities. With patience and guidance, we can use resilience and courage to take our history to make history.


Here at Bergen Volunteers, our Bergen LEADS program transforms individuals into ones who use their experience and knowledge to take action for the common good. We cultivate leaders just like Gutierrez who learn about the challenges facing their communities and develop the skills needed to address them and effect change. Over the past 15 years, more than 400 leaders have completed our 10-month extensive program involving project development, topical debates, site visits, alumni networking, and more. They learn about a vast number of issues ranging from mental health to environmental concerns to local government.


We would like to congratulate the Bergen LEADS Class of 2020-21! They most recently presented their project “Need a Hand, Lend a Hand - The Halt Hunger Project” where they discussed how their community can connect to food resources in Bergen County. Now we welcome the incoming class of 2021-22, and we are so excited to see how this program will transform them into the next generation of community leaders!


We encourage you to get involved in Bergen LEADS to make a difference in our community. If you’d like to contribute to our scholarships or become a sponsor, contact Nina Bachrach at or 201.489.9454 x201 for more information.


We need both the Caheri Gutierrezes and the Tammy Clouds in this world: those who utilize their challenges and experiences to make a difference, and those who help pave their path. And at Bergen LEADS, you can accomplish both.

O'Brien, James. Until You Bleed: The Caheri Gutierrez Story. 2013.