Funny commercials and in-store displays seem to promote back-to-school sales earlier and earlier each year. While the deals may be great, the families that Tedford Housing serves aren’t always able to participate in the annual rush to fulfill their children’s school supplies lists. The families we serve are struggling to find or maintain their permanent housing. Ticonderoga pencils and fashion trends are the last thing on their minds.

Tedford Housing is fortunate to have Tammy Cutchen and Meghan Painton working in the background to make sure kids can go back to school equipped with everything they need to feel “like every other kid.” Under the umbrella of Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine (AFFM), Tammy and Meghan provide backpacks filled with grade-appropriate school supplies, personal care items such as toiletries and towels and a new outfit through the Ready Set Go to Learn (RSG2L) program.

Tammy and Meghan started their altruistic endeavor, The Clothing Garage, in 2009. They met at the Head Start program in Brunswick. Meghan ran the program and Tammy had foster kids who attended. Meghan had a “free box” at the center and families could use the contents of the box — mostly clothes — so they could save their money for basic needs like food and rent.

Tammy loved the recycling aspect of the box. Donating was an easy way to help others, and people are often more likely to donate items when they know it is being put to good use and at no cost to the recipient. Kids who came into Tammy’s care often didn’t have many possessions and so she knew the need was real.

Meghan and Tammy decided to start something even bigger. The donations soon outgrew the “free box” and would be stored in other people’s homes on a volunteer basis where there was more room. This gave more people opportunity to receive donations, but Tammy and Meghan quickly saw that finding transportation to pick up the donations was a challenge for many families. They often would deliver items.

In this process, they also noticed that many parents needed resources for school supplies but very few programs existed. Without a budget and “not knowing what they were doing,” Meghan and Tammy were able to provide backpacks and supplies for 100 kids in their first year of the RSG2L program. A woman who had gone through the foster system herself offered her basement for storage. Meghan describes totes being stacked from floor to ceiling in that first year. They slowly figured things out, putting up shelves to make for easier storage and using donations of money to shop for supplies in the off-season in order to get better deals on items.

The RSG2L program grew and this year filled over 200 backpacks for kids in Brunswick and surrounding towns. Meghan and Tammy are quick to note that this would not have been accomplished without all the volunteers they had this summer, coordinated by Linda Ashe-Ford, and the donation of space from St. Paul’s Church.

As if that wasn’t enough, Meghan and Tammy also started the Hope for Holiday program to help provide winter jackets and boots to families in need. While there are many programs for gifts, they noticed the need for winter gear not being fulfilled.

Everything was, and still is, done by volunteers, including Meghan and Tammy, and with a very small budget. It is truly a grassroots organization. Meghan, a single mom who works two jobs, spends her own vacation time filling backpacks so RSG2L recipients can be set for when school starts. She says she’s working on balancing the work involved with the program and hopes The Clothing Garage can soon become its own nonprofit entity outside of AFFM.

The items that get the most response from kids who receive backpacks from the RSG2L program are the personal care items. In addition to their school supplies, students also receive their own towel, toothbrush, shampoo and other personal care items. As Meghan noted, we don’t realize that not all kids have these items at their disposal.

This school year, the RSG2L program provided backpacks to 22 families that Tedford Housing serves, including 44 kids. They left us with a few extra backpacks and supplies in case we needed them, which we did. It is a program that we have come to rely on every August as summer starts to come to an end.

Every kid deserves to have a fresh start to the school year. We are thankful for people like Meghan and Tammy who help make that happen for our families.

JENNIFER IACOVELLI is the director of development at Tedford Housing. Giving Voice is a weekly collaboration among four local non-profit service agencies to share information and stories about their work in the community.

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