WESLEY CHAPEL — Backpacks spilled from huge boxes, mountains of crayons grew and a tower of spiral notebooks stood tall.
It wasn't a newly opened store; it was the cafeteria of Wesley Chapel Elementary School, the distribution site for Projects of Pasco Inc., where dozens of volunteers organized and handed out school supplies to families who couldn't buy for their children this year.
More than 800 central and east Pasco children started school Monday with backpacks stuffed with notebooks, folders, pencils, erasers, rulers and more, all free from local folks and businesses.
The drive was the effort of Bob Loring, known in Pasco for his work with the Marine Corps-sponsored Toys for Tots, and Anna Fulk, president of Projects of Pasco, and Suse Hilton, vice president of the local organization.
Early Saturday morning, more than 75 adults, and a few children, gathered outside the school cafeteria.
Under threatening skies, Loring tried to cheer up the growing crowd, many of whom were uncomfortable with the idea of receiving a "free handout."
"I've never had to do this. I like to be able to do things on my own," said Betty Conley, her voice trembling. She wanted her two middle school daughters to start their new year with things they needed.
"This summer was a hard time," said Conley, reflecting the financial strains that many are feeling these days.
"I'm really glad we have this to turn to," Conley added with two backpacks — one pink, one purple — hanging on her shoulders.
Cafeteria tables were labeled by grades and lists supplied by the Pasco school system defined crucial items for each grade. Volunteers stood ready to hand out scissors, construction paper, pencil boxes and other supplies.
Guidance counselors at each school joined local social service agencies, the Pasco Sheriff's Office, Dade City police, Zephyrhills police and local school committees to identify students who needed help. Parents or guardians registered for the school supply distribution, but if someone not registered showed up, they weren't turned away. They simply waited at the end of the line, behind those registered.
A check-in station paired parents or guardians with a Wesley Chapel High School cheerleader who escorted them to the right grade level table.
"I'm really glad to see children get new things that are not things picked over. It's nice to know community people care about those who don't have what they need," said Jordan Garret, 15, a sophomore cheerleader. She and Tori Musco, 16, and Keaundra Delaney, 15, joined teammates volunteering for the event.
"There are two types of people here," Loring said. "There are those who need help and those who can help."
Loring offered praise to Fulk and Hilton for their dedicated support for both Toys for Tots at Christmas and Projects of Pasco.
Rebounding off Toys for Tots, site captains in east Pasco discussed with the Loring the need for extending the relief beyond the holiday season. Thus, the school supply idea was born. Now in its fourth year, the project has reached thousands of children.
"We want every child to walk into school proud and ready to go," Hilton said.
The project has grown. Recently, the San Antonio Rotary, with president Betty Burke, joined with the San Antonio Animal Hospital to provide an experience for 30 children from Farmworkers' Self-Help. Burke called it a vocational and literacy experience. The children toured the animal hospital, getting a glimpse of many jobs, and also received from the hospital a backpack stuffed with school supplies from Project of Pasco. The San Antonio Rotary will later provide Spanish-English dictionaries for the students.
Loring dreams of seeing a civic club and a business club in each of the areas — Zephyrhills, Dade City, Land O'Lakes and Lacoochee, in addition to the existing one in Wesley Chapel — join each year to provide for a group of needy children from their respective areas.
"Each community needs a distribution site. If we do this job right, these kids will one day be contributing members of the community," he said.
Fulk isn't shy when it comes to calling on businesses for supplies. She rattles off the list of supporters, including the New York Yankees, Verizon, the Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce, VFW Auxiliary, Fraternal Order of Eagles, Red Hat Tootsies, Publix, Sweetbay, San Antonio Rotary and people who wrote personal checks and donated items.