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Mon Schools kids get supplied for class at Back to School Bash

MORGANTOWN – A seemingly endless stream of cars circled through the Mountaineer Mall parking lot Saturday morning. Volunteers stood at stations under the summer sun, passing books, backpacks filled with school supplies, hygiene tote bags and boxes of food through open windows to kids and parents inside the cars.

It was the third annual Back to School Bash, open to all Monongalia County Schools students.

“The goal and objective here is to get students excited to learn,” said Manda Bolyard, bash co-chair and board member of Pantry Plus More, a program aimed at ending hunger in Monongalia County. “When students go to school ashamed … their peers are looking down on them. We want to make sure that students are excited. Because education is the pathway out of poverty.”

Back to School Bash Chair Amanda Bolyard (left) and Pantry Plus More Volunteer Sandy Clark fill backpacks Friday at the Westover facility. (Ben Conley/The Dominion Post)

It used to be that a child in need of school supplies would up in front of everybody to receive them, said Pantry Plus co-founder and Mon County Commissioner Tom Bloom, who was darting from place to place helping things run smoothly. Many kids were so embarrassed by the public handout they would throw it away.

But the bash is open to all Mon County Schools student.  So no one feels they’re less than anyone else, Bloom said. They’ve even had some calls from laid-off Mylan workers.

Roarke Sizemore, Pantry Plus More board president and bash co-founder, said, “This is a big event. Everyone in the organization has a little part to play.” They expected more than 1,000 and perhaps up to 1,500 people to pass through

Stations were set up in the parking lot right in front of the mall. Bash co-founder Natalie Webb, principal at North Elementary, was overseeing the book station, where each child could receive five free books. She pitched the idea to Sizemore, she said, and the first bash was held three years ago at North.

 “It’s just grown exponentially every year,” she said. “Over the years I’ve just seen students that come to school feeling unprepared. Socially and emotionally, I see the toll that it takes on them.” They can’t learn if basic needs aren’t met.

COVID moved it outside this year, and unlike the previous two they couldn’t have a haircut station, she said, but they were giving out haircut coupons.

The next station was backpacks – hundreds of them hanging from racks, with more ready on tables. Bolyard said they spent organizing the bash. They spent months buying supplies, writing grants and packing packs. More than 100 people turned out Saturday to volunteer.

There were two sets of backpacks: one for K-5 with notebook,  paper, markers, crayons, pencils and more. And 6-12 backpacks with some similar supplies plus composition books, calculators and earbuds.

In previous years when it was indoors, she said, kids could pick stuff to put in their packs. This year, the packs were pre-packed but kids could pick one they liked from the racks.

Terezia Galikova and Paige Poffenberger slice vegtables during the Back to School Bash on Saturday.

Next station was the hygiene totes, from Mon Health System. Krystal Atkinson, chief nursing executive, said, “We are so excited to be able to partner with Pantry Plus on the hygiene drive. We had such an overwhelming abundance of gifts from our staff.” Age-appropriate bags contained such things as hand soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo and soap – to help kids get clean and ready to go to school in the morning.

Kids could pick out coats and socks at the clothing station, then hit the school box station with jugs of milk and orange juice and some lunch items.

Off to the side, before the drive-thru stations, were a Mon County Health Department dental screening van, a tent for free COVID vaccine shots, and a food-prep demonstration tent station staffed by WVU medical students.

Paige Poffenberger and Terezia Galikova were two of those student,s both in their second year, pursuing the culinary track.

In that track, Poffenberger said, they learn that medicine alone is not enough, and learn how to use food as a form of medicine to promote good, healthy eating.

At their tent, they were using food kids were getting in their pantry boxes and showing them how to prepare health dishes. On Saturday’s menu were chicken salad, tuna salad, fruit salad, chickpea salad and peanut butter protein bites.

“We’re just helping to educate the community on ways they can improve their nutrition,” she said.

Around the corner and set off by itself was a mobile food distribution station. This station involved a separate registration. Some families came just for this, Boom said, other came for everything. Some came just for vaccinations.

 Much of Saturday’s supply was donated, Bloom said. Chestnut Ridge Church was a partner and the Milan Puskar Foundation provided a substantial grant.

They were sending some supplies out to the west end of the county for those who couldn’t come to Morgantown, Bloom said. And on the chance they ran out or that a family missed out, parents can call Pantry Plus More (304-282-1123) to receive items.

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