TAMPA — Teacher Bonnie McPhail was supervising dismissal at Jackson Elementary in Plant City when she noticed a child who kept taking a plastic grocery bag out of his backpack.
She asked him to put everything in his backpack. He did, then took the bag out again.
When McPhail realized the backpack had a hole in the bottom, she gave him a new one. He asked, incredulously, Can I keep it? "Yes, it's all yours," she said.
Educators say such gestures mean the world to a child who does not have the same basic supplies as his classmates.
"It's tough out there and many teachers and families are facing financially tough times," superintendent MaryEllen Elia said at a recent fundraiser for a program called Teaching Tools.
"Children come to school with many needs. We don't want them to know they aren't like everyone else."
Teaching Tools, part of the nonprofit Hillsborough Education Foundation, is celebrating its 10th year in operation and seeking to expand.
Now serving 110 of the district's poorest schools, the program would like to serve 120, said foundation president Phil Jones. Even more schools are on a waiting list to receive assistance.
The "store," as it is called, is housed on the ground floor of the foundation's headquarters in West Tampa.
Businesses donate pencils and pens that become obsolete due to rebranding, or marketing trinkets left over from events. Close-out merchandise comes from office supply companies.
It adds up to between $1 million and $2 million worth of merchandise given out each year. Teachers are able to "shop" once a month for free.
During a recent visit, teachers could choose from complete sets of books for young children and old-fashioned cigar boxes for pencils; DVDs, water bottles and stuffed toys from Busch Gardens.
Marisa Ray was shopping for her students at Just Elementary School, where the vast majority live in public housing. "Band-Aids, because you never have enough Band-Aids," she said, rummaging through her cart. "Tissues, because somebody is always sick. And copy paper because nobody has enough copy paper."
Most schools send wish lists home to parents at the beginning of the year. At Just, she said, they don't bother. "It would be a waste of copy paper."
Linda Barnhart of Gibsonton Elementary was picking out trinkets for her third-graders to sell in their student store.
They all get fake money each week for classroom jobs, she said.
"Sometimes if they have a birthday party coming up, they'll spend their money on a gift," she said. "They're very thoughtful and they think of other people."
Even with her monthly excursions to Teaching Tools, Barnhart said she makes a lot of trips to dollar stores. Conservatively, she said, she spends at least $500 a year on classroom supplies, including food. "You have to," she said. "At 10:30, they start asking, when's lunch?"
The nonprofit Adopt A Classroom reports that 91 percent of teachers, like Barnhart, buy their students snacks, supplies and personal care items such as toothbrushes and soap.
At Mort Elementary School, where 98 percent of the students are low-income, preschool teacher Melissa Boucher has known parents who buy supplies instead of food.
"I love seeing the relief on the faces of the parents when I let them know I can provide them with those supplies and they don't have to spend money that they don't have," she told 400 guests at Wednesday's fundraiser.
"My students, whenever I bring in a new box of supplies, they swarm around me and they all want to see what I brought back to the classroom. And they are all excited to use the supplies right away."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]