As Ottawa students prepare to head back to school, parents across the city are streaming to supply stores to stock up on pens, paper and pencil crayons for their kids.
Filling up a backpack with a year's supply of notebooks, the newest style of binders and a math set with a compass that is sure to break by October has become a necessary and expensive end-of-summer ritual.
But while back-to-school flyers depict happy children sporting bright new backpacks, the reality for thousands of families across the city is less than rosy. With food and gas prices on the rise and a recent restructuring of provincial social assistance funding, many parents are struggling to find room in their already tight budget for back-to-school supplies.
Since 2000, Child and Youth Friendly Ottawa has stepped in to fill the gap by providing school supplies to students across the city through its Tools 4 School program.
"It's important for kids to all be on level when they're in school," says Keegan On, CAYFO's youth program assistant. "School's hard enough without feeling disadvantaged because you don't have the right supplies or equipment."
Tools 4 School works in partnership with the Ottawa Public Library, the Ottawa Food Bank and various community organizations and schools to collect new school supplies and distribute them to low-income families throughout the city. Since the program began, it has provided more than 16,000 fully-stocked backpacks to children and youth in Ottawa. On says the demand for supplies increases every year, with nearly 4,000 requests this year alone.
A typical Tools 4 School backpack contains pencils, crayons, markers, notebooks, a ruler and a pencil case in junior kits destined for younger children, as well as pens, binders, paper and a calculator in senior kits for older students. These basic supplies add up to around $50, a cost that can be a significant burden to low-income families.
"It can add up, and it's not cheap, not cheap at all," says Geordie Raine, who has taught Grades 6 to 8 in Ottawa for the past four years. "It's hard for underprivileged families. Kids of recent immigrants, for example, tend not to have a lot of money and they need the supplies and support, because a lot of times they aren't sure what they should be buying their kids, so that guidance is helpful too."
While Raine points out that most schools do provide basic classroom supplies, the expectation that kids will start the school year with brand new materials creates a gap between those who can afford the latest trends and those who can't.
"The peer pressure to have the new binders, the new highlighters, all what's current this year is the big thing," says Louisa Simms, coordinator for the Heron Emergency Food Bank, which distributes the Tools 4 School backpacks to its clients. "People are embarrassed if they don't have this. It's all right to have a binder that someone might donate, but if it's all ripped then it's not going to be efficient, it's not going to carry your notes,” she says. “So you want to purchase something that's going to last, but it's expensive, so they don't have enough to buy everything."
A major factor in this year's demand is the shifting structure of the Ontario Child Benefit, monthly provincial assistance given to low-income families with children under 18. Previously, this included a lump sum back-to-school allowance in July that would help families cover the cost of supplies and clothing that they would need to purchase for the coming school year.
But as of July, the back-to-school allowance has been rolled into the monthly OCB payments, which means that while families receive the same amount of assistance annually, they are expected to save money throughout the year to buy school supplies in the fall. Coupled with increasing costs of fuel and basic food staples, many families struggle to set aside what's needed for back-to-school.
"People just can't afford it," says Simms. "They get their money, and they have to pay utilities and whatever else they have to pay, and buy food, and there's none left over for school."
On top of basic supplies and new clothing and shoes for school, many parents often worry about the hidden cost of the increasing use of computers and technology in education. As computer-based math programs and graphing calculators become more common, and more teachers require that assignments be typed, there is a risk that children who do not have a home computer or Internet access could fall behind.
"There's only so much we can do with the program, but I'd like to think that the school supplies we give them are a decent alternative to the technology that's out there," On says. "We do get graphing calculators and things like that, so we try to keep up as best we can."
But Raine notes that resources are available to help families keep up with the technological demands.
"Computers play an increasing role, it's kind of inevitable," he says. "But it's rarely a problem. Most kids have Internet access, and for families who have a computer but who can't afford the Internet, there's an organization called the National Capital Freenet, so the school can provide them with a connection. Most people are able to get Internet access. And the schools do stay open so kids have computer access until 10 at night every day of the week."
This focus on community access is echoed in Tools 4 School's partnership with the Ottawa Public Library's Every Kid a Card campaign, which encourages students to sign up for a library card and explore the library's resources. The campaign promotes reading as a tool for academic success, and aims to get kids into the libraries to take advantage of the homework help that is available at many branches.
"We think it's important that everyone has a library card because it's one of the best free services in the city," says Jane Venus, manager of children and teen services for the Ottawa Public Library. "While parents are thinking about school supplies, we want them to think about getting a library card as one of those supplies, to start off on the right foot."
"School supplies and literacy go hand in hand, and the more well-equipped you are, both physically and mentally, helps you to get ahead in school," he says.
On says that helping Ottawa students get ahead has become a community effort, with some 100 volunteers working on the Tools 4 School campaign, picking up the supplies donated at libraries and community centres and sorting them for distribution. Corporate donations have also been a significant help, with one company donating 300 of this year's fully-stocked backpacks.
The community support can make a huge difference for a child. Simms, who requested 100 backpacks for her centre alone, recounts a story from her first year at the food bank, when a young girl was given a new, donated box of crayons.
"She held them up and said, 'Look, daddy, brand new crayons, they're not used and they're not broke!' The man started to cry,” she said. “A brand new pack of crayons that were 79 cents put that much happiness into that little girl, that family. One pack of crayons, just something that was brand new."
Donations of supplies to the Tools 4 School program can be made at any Ottawa public library, or at various drop-off locations around the city. For more information visit www.cayfo.ca