A new school year brings a unique set of challenges for homeless children, who may not have all the basic supplies they need. For the past 16 years, the Homeless Children’s Education Fund has worked to fill in the gaps left by budget cuts to social programs, by supplying backpacks and school supplies for homeless children in the Pittsburgh area.

On Friday, volunteers from UPMC Health Plan and Citizens Bank helped workers with the HCEF load more than 2,000 backpacks onto school buses for delivery to area shelters. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and State Sen. Wayne Fontana were both on hand to assist with the effort.

“The need for these school supplies continues to grow,” says Bill Wolfe, executive director of the Homeless Children’s Education Fund. “When children start off the school year without the basic things they need, it’s hard for them to get caught up.”

And the social stigma of not having something as fundamental as a backpack can make homeless children vulnerable to bullying, Wolfe adds.

At one time the HCEF Gear for Grades program was one of a number of backpack drives in the Pittsburgh area, but Wolfe said the number of programs has dwindled in recent years. However, the number of homeless children is on the rise: the Allegheny County Department of Human Services estimated that the number of homeless children has grown from about 1,800 children last year, to more than 2,900 as the current school year begins.

“The need is very real, and it’s not going away,” Wolfe says. And the rising cost of school supplies, especially at the high school level, doesn’t make it any easier.

The National Center for Homeless Education estimates that homeless children struggle in math and reading, and the lack of a stable living situation can make it more likely these children will fall behind in school. The goal of the HCEF is to give homeless children in Allegheny County stable learning environments, and prevent setbacks.

“Engaging with our schools and community partners to ensure that all our children have the essential supplies they need to be able to learn and succeed in school is critical for these youth as they begin the new school year,” says Scott Lammie of UPMC Health Plan. “We will fill these backpacks with school supplies, but we will also be filling them with hope for a better tomorrow for thousands of our children.”IMG_8083

The backpacks, which included supplies like notebooks, pens and pencils, calculators and flash drives, were assembled by volunteers over the past several weeks, Wolfe says.

“It’s heartwarming to see the number of people who donate school supplies and volunteer to stuff backpacks, and we are pleased to be involved in the effort,” says Dan Fitzpatrick of Citizens Bank.

Want to help? Contact the Homeless Children’s Education Fund for more information and to volunteer.