BACK-TO-SCHOOL shopping sneaks up on one's pocketbook. Between the colorful binders, Crayola 8-packs, new jeans and sneakers and electronic gizmos, families will spend about $563 per kid this year, according to the National Retail Federation. Outfitting a child with even the most basic school supplies -- a backpack, binders, notebooks, pens, pencils and glue sticks -- will set families back about $94. For some East Bay families, that's impossible.

Every year, the Times and its generous readers help families in need through Project Ready to Learn, our annual school supplies drive. Last year, Times and Hills Newspapers readers donated enough backpacks and supplies to equip more than 4,200 needy children and contributed more than $22,000 to help even more.

"It was overwhelming. You couldn't get over the backpacks," says Jamie Pulido of VESTIA, Contra Costa County's Volunteer and Emergency Services Team in Action, which partners with the Times on the project. "Have you ever been somewhere where you didn't have the right clothes or you felt uncomfortable? Now imagine a small child at school. Those backpacks get those children off to the right start. You start his day off right, his year off right, his life off right."

The eighth annual Project Ready to Learn starts today and runs through Aug. 17. And this year, we're teaming up with our colleagues at the Oakland Tribune and other ANG Newspapers to broaden our reach and benefit kids throughout the East Bay, from Brentwood to Hayward.


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We'll be joined by our longtime partners, VESTIA and Alameda County's Tools 4 School, who coordinate delivery of the backpacks and supplies -- donated by readers and lovingly packed by members of the Junior League of the Oakland East Bay and National Charity League -- to needy children whose families are struggling to make ends meet.

"Many of our parents work two jobs to pay rent and buy food. Some are homeless," says Mimi Deverse, former principal at Hayward's Tyrrell School. "My children are proud, hard working students ... They so appreciate gifts that make them just like everyone else."

That's what motivates volunteers such as Karen Robman, a San Ramon mom who single-handedly buys, packs and assembles 200 children's backpacks and is hoping to get her daughter's school involved this year, too.

Jenkins Athens Insurance Services also got the bug early. The Concord-based company started loading backpacks last week. Between enthusiasm for the project and some good-natured inter-departmental rivalry, by Monday, employees had filled nearly three dozen bulging backpacks. Staffers were eyeballing their cargo space to see how many cars they'd need to transport everything.

Calls are pouring in. Boy Scout troops and church groups are mobilizing. And now, we need you. Between now and Aug. 17, you can drop off brand-new backpacks and school supplies at any of the locations listed. Or, write a check to our volunteer partners, VESTIA in Contra Costa County and Tools 4 School in Alameda County.

Reach Jackie Burrell at 925-977-8568 or jburrell@cctimes.com, and Rebecca Rosen Lum at rrosenlum@cctimes.com or 925-977-8506.

PROJECT READY TO LEARN: FAQS

What is Project Ready to Learn?

The Contra Costa Times' annual backpack and school supplies drive, Project Ready to Learn, provides new backpacks and school supplies to impoverished kids throughout the East Bay. It's a project that would be impossible without the generous support of our many readers and members of the Junior League of the Oakland/East Bay, National Charity League and two wonderful social services volunteer groups, VESTIA and Tools 4 School. And this year, we'll be joined by our colleagues at the Oakland Tribune and other ANG newspapers, too.

Contra Costa donations go to the Volunteer and Emergency Services Team in Action or VESTIA, the volunteer arm of Contra Costa's social services department, for distribution to needy children throughout the county.

Alameda County donations go to Tools 4 School, an umbrella project joining the forces of 15 agencies who work with children in poverty. School supplies will be donated throughout Alameda county.

When is it?

This year's drive runs today through Aug. 17.

What kinds of school supplies are needed?

A list of needed school supplies is below, but please note that all school supply items must be new. We cannot accept old or even "gently used" supplies, so please do not open packages, sharpen pencils, etc. Also, backpacks with prints and most colors are fine, but please avoid solid colored backpacks in bright red or blue.

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL BACKPACKS

  • age-appropriate backpack (but not bright red or blue)

  • pencils

  • a big eraser

  • crayons

  • set of markers

  • ruler

  • safety scissors

  • glue sticks

  • several wide-ruled notebooks or a thick pack of loose-leaf lined paper

  • three to five colored folders

  • also nice to have: a pencil box, red marking pens, etc.

    MIDDLE SCHOOL BACKPACKS

  • age appropriate backpack (but not bright red or blue)

  • pencils

  • pens

  • set of markers

  • set of colored pencils

  • glue sticks

  • erasers

  • several college-ruled notebooks or thick pack of loose-leaf lined paper

  • protractor or compass

  • simple calculator

  • also nice to have: homework planner, dictionary, extra erasers, erasable pens, highlighters, red marking pens, tape, index cards, etc.

    HIGH SCHOOL BACKPACKS

  • age appropriate backpack (but not bright red or blue)

  • lots of pencils

  • lots of pens

  • erasers

  • large set of colored markers

  • large set of colored pencils

  • several college-ruled notebooks and/or thick pack of loose-leaf lined paper

  • several folders or organizer binder

  • calculator, preferably scientific

  • also nice to have: homework planner, dictionary or thesaurus, highlighters, red marking pens, tape, index cards

    Are donations tax-deductible?

    Yes. Both VESTIA and Tools 4 School are nonprofit agencies. If you need a receipt, request one when you drop off supplies.

    May I donate cash?

    Absolutely! Contra Costa residents may write a check to VESTIA. Include the words "Project Ready to Learn" in the memo line. Mail to VESTIA, 30 Muir Road in Martinez, CA 94553. For details, call 925-335-2190.

    Alameda County residents may write a check to Lincoln Child Center, including the words "Tools For School" or "Project Ready to Learn" in the memo line. Mail to Lincoln Child Center, Attn.: Sara Lamnin, 22245 Main St., Suite 102, Hayward, CA 94541. For details call Sara Lamnin at 510-867-0957.

    Where can I drop off supplies?

    Supplies dropped off at Alameda County locations are distributed to needy children throughout that county. Contributions from Contra Costa County go to children in that county.

    1) Contra Costa Times

    2640 Shadelands Drive, Walnut Creek

    925-935-2525

    8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday

    2) East County Times

    1700 Cavallo Road, Antioch

    925-757-2525

    9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday

    3) Brentwood Lending Group

    8:30-5 p.m. Monday-Friday

    201 Sandcreek Road., Suite G, Brentwood

    925-240-9995

    4) West County Times

    4301 Lakeside Drive, Richmond

    510-758-8400

    8 a.m.-noon; 1-4 p.m. Monday-Friday

    5) The Storyteller

    30 Lafayette Circle, Lafayette

    925-284-3480

    9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday

    6) Alameda Journal

    1516 Oak St., Alameda

    510-748-1666

    8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday

    7) Valley Times

    127 Spring St., Pleasanton

    925-847-2124

    8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday

    Also at these ANG Newspaper sites:

    Tri-Valley Herald

    4770 Willow Road, Pleasanton

    Oakland Tribune

    7677 Oakport St., Suite 950, Oakland

    The Argus

    39737 Paseo Padre Parkway, Fremont

    Daily Review

    22533 Foothill Blvd., Hayward

    And at these Tools 4 School sites:

    Lincoln Campus

    4368 Lincoln Ave., Oakland

    Tools 4 School

    22245 Main St., Suite 102, Hayward

    How can my child get a free backpack?

    Our partner service organizations, VESTIA and Tools 4 School, handle backpack distribution. If you live in Contra Costa County, contact VESTIA at 925-335-2190; if you live in Alameda County, contact Tools 4 School at 510-867-0957 and ask to be placed on the backpack waiting list.

    More questions?

    Contact Jackie Burrell at 925-977-8568 or jburrell@cctimes.com; or Rebecca Rosen Lum at 925-977-8506 or rrosenlum@cctimes.com.