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Free school supplies store shuts doors

Barbara Bosser was unhappy to get the news, but unhappier still to have to tell her students. Bosser, an exceptional student education teacher at Pinellas Park Elementary School, got word on Tuesday that A Gift for Teaching of Pinellas, the nonprofit store that provides free supplies to 25 Title I schools, was closing its doors because of a lack of funding.

"I'm just in shock. I'm devastated," said Bosser, who shops and volunteers at the store.

Like other teachers who get one free shopping trip each month to pick up supplies for students, Bosser's school has a high percentage of students on free or reduced-price lunches. Some students come from families who can't afford to buy items on the recommended school supplies list given out at the beginning of the school year. And some can't afford to buy books for their children.

"Everything in this store benefits my kids. Those books go into the classroom. I had a little boy who wanted a book a day for a home library. He could not wait to pick up (another) book," Bosser said.

Bosser said she has been able to stock a classroom library and send books home with her students since A Gift for Teaching of Pinellas opened in October 2004. Not to mention the paper and pencils, tape and glue that she has been able to use on class assignments and special projects.

"If every company donated a small amount - even minute amount - we could stay open, because we have enough volunteers," Bosser said.

Neither volunteers, nor supplies is the problem, said executive director Alice Carter. There has been an outpouring of volunteers since the beginning and the organization has been blessed with faithful corporate and private donors, Carter said. "We've had daily donations (this year) since Jan. 2. We have that many regular donors," Carter said.

The challenge has been a lack of cash donations to fund the program, Carter said.

"The teachers were just shocked and saddened and we tried everything we could. The board tried to see if we could get some sort of short-term infusion until we could secure money from grants promised for later in the year," Carter said.

The nonprofit held its final teachers' shopping day on Thursday. A liquidation sale of office and warehouse items, including display cases and shelving, is scheduled for Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the store 9735 International Court N, and is open to the public.

"The supplies that are appropriate for classroom use, we're making arrangements to have them picked up by the school district. We are positive they will get into the hands of the kids on free and reduced lunches that need them," Carter said.

Carter said she was particularly touched when, on Tuesday, teachers refused to take everything off the shelves because they wanted to make sure supplies were left for other teachers who might come on Thursday.

"Teachers are selfless, creative, warm people," Carter said.

Elizabeth Frankenfeld, prekindergarten special education teacher at Skycrest Elementary in Clearwater, was going through large plastic bins filled with books on Thursday, picking out the ones appropriate for her 3- and 4-year-olds. Extra books would be sent home with students, Frankenfeld said as she pulled a Scholastic Flush the Potty book out of the bin.

"Some get returned and that's okay. Some get kept (at home) and that's even better. I want my parents to be able to buy food," she said.

Frankenfeld said that obtaining additional resources for her kids will give them an advantage as they continue their education. "Any way I can help the children now helps them all the way down the line," Frankenfeld said.

Donna Blanton, third grade teacher at Pinellas Park Elementary School, said that paper and pencils - the most basic of school supplies - are sometimes hard to come by in the classroom unless she provides them. Blanton, who also volunteers at the store, said the closing was "very disheartening."

"They have provided so much for the kids that they can't normally get or afford. It's a shame that such a good resource for us is leaving," Blanton said.

Carter said that she hopes that a similar program will be created in the future.

"Educationally at-risk students need every bit of support the community can offer," she said.