Awesome Foundation Grant Award Winner: Pencils Plus

Written by: Brandi Malarkey
You hear 600 backpacks and don’t realize how much it takes to fill them!” All these boxes you see were filled with school supplies. It's just crazy.

Jayme Burlison stands in the middle of the Wahpeton Community Center. Organized groups of backpacks line the walls while the center of the room is filled with what appears to be a small mountain of cardboard. Jayme and her co-worker, Becky DeVries of the Three Rivers Crisis Center in Wahpeton, ND, have just finished filling the last backpack with supplies for the Pencils Plus: Richland-Wilkin School Supply Drive.

The drive, which took place August 11, marks the second year that the Three Rivers Crisis Center has hosted Pencils Plus, and it is more than a little unusual to have a school supply drive run by an entity which provides services for survivors of domestic violence, sexual violence and child sexual abuse. For years the school supply drive was run by the Richland Wilkin United Way, which dissolved in December 2019. The following year the Richland/Wilkin Community Foundation did a COVID version of the drive. When they realized the continued depth of the need for the program, the Foundation asked if any of the area nonprofits would be willing to take on the task for 2021. Three Rivers Crisis Center stepped up.

“No one else volunteered and we knew it was a huge need, so we just jumped in,” Jayme said. “It was the end of June and we went in blind. It was just ‘this is what we’re doing now’ as we rushed to pull everything together by August.”

“Collette Barton, who was the director of United Way here for many years, was so invested in this program and has just been invaluable. She didn’t want us to have to start from scratch, so she gave us all the information she had,” Becky said. “It was such a huge help last year when we knew nothing.”

When United Way began the program, it provided around 200 backpacks. Over the years, the need has steadily increased, bringing this year’s total to 600. Three Rivers Crisis Center pulls the school supply lists from all eight school districts and makes an effort to obtain the most commonly requested items by grade, including glue, markers, notebooks and scissors, with special efforts to obtain the brands requested by teachers so that there is a consistency in both quality and inclusion in the classrooms.

“Last year was a wild ride,” Jayme said. “This year was so different. We knew we were doing it so we were able to plan and ask for help. People have been amazingly supportive, either donating money or school supplies. We’ve gotten a lot of support from businesses; some collected from their employees. ABU Trailers donated a utility trailer for us to auction off. It’s been amazing.”

“Bobcat went through our Amazon Wishlist and we kept getting package after package,” Becky said. “People have been so generous financially. And we’ve had so many volunteers who have contributed to helping pack the backpacks and to keep us organized and help promote. Three young men from the Valley Lake Boys Home offered to help set up tables and move backpacks for us after playing basketball during their summer school program. People have been so willing to jump in to make this happen.”

While the Richland-Wilkin Backpack & Coats for Kids Distribution is a one-day event shared with the Optimist Club of Wahpeton, who collect winter gear for school students, Three Rivers maintains that financial resources must be collected all year round to make the program successful. Although the Three Rivers Crisis Center’s staff all volunteer their time, the Richland-Wilkin School Supply Drive does not fall within the Center’s scope of practice. Therefore, no funds from the non-profit can be used to purchase supplies for the initiative. This makes community donations, like the $1000 gift from the Cass Clay chapter of the Awesome Foundation who named Pencils Plus their August 2022 grantee, vital to the continuation of the program.

“When we have financial contributions and know what we are getting we can take that money and search for deals. There are often big sales in December and January, and because they are off-season we can search for those and make a bulk order to store for the next year,” Becky said.

“With costs going up we need to shop like that to make it work,” Jayme said.

With so much community support Three Rivers Crisis Center is looking to make Pencils Plus a separate non-profit with a mission statement more in line with education in hopes of opening additional avenues of funding.

“We’ve had so many volunteers express interest in being involved,” Becky said. “We’re just so thankful we live in the community we do.”


Donations can be made via PayPal or items purchased off the Amazon Wishlist.

The Cass Clay chapter of the Awesome Foundation awards a $1,000 gift each month for awesome ideas of all sorts. Grant recipients do not need to be associated with a non-profit. Applications can be made at cassclay

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