On a drizzly Saturday afternoon, volunteers from community organizations across Finney County unloaded bus after bus stuffed with donated school supplies for the coming academic year.

The exercise was part of the aptly named Stuff the Bus school supplies donation drive, which was held Saturday and Sunday at the Walmart Supercenter, Walmart Neighborhood Market, both Dillons locations, and, new to this year’s drive, Target.

The effort, coordinated in large part by organizations such as the Salvation Army, United Way, CASA, LiveWell Finney County and Genesis Family Health, represents the fourth year running for the drive. By doing it as a united effort, the agencies are able to reach more children from pre-K to 12th grade in Finney County and avoid duplicating efforts.

Lt. Jeff Curran of the Salvation Army was at Garfield Early Childhood Center on Saturday during the unloading process. He said the collective effort means more backpacks get distributed and more kids are getting school supplies. Last year, he said, the drive provided school supplies to approximately 1,500 students with “almost” no duplication.

“We started out with about 800, and we climbed up to about 1,000 and 1,300, then 1,500, and whether that trend keeps going this year or not, we don’t know,” Curran said, noting that funds were a little lower than usual this year, but community support was more forthcoming than ever.

“When we just asked people to buy one or two items off the list and drop them off when they came back, I was watching people come out with literally bags full of stuff, and I wasn’t expecting that,” Curran said. “You see it occasionally, but you don’t see it as much as what I saw today. It was just amazing to see people come out and literally bring a bag full of stuff.”

Curran was stationed at the Walmart Neighborhood Market, where volunteers handed out fliers outlining the desired school supplies: backpacks, crayons, pencils, large erasers, blue and black pens, notebooks, notebook paper, three-ring binders, pencil cases, glue sticks, glue, colored pencils, washable markers, highlighters, scissors, pocket folders and watercolor paints.

The drive has become a “true community effort,” Curran said, adding that the local Salvation Army and United Way offices will continue accepting donations after the drive.

“We just want to make sure all kids have a good start,” he said. “This is what I see as investing in the future of not just the community but our country. Giving our kids a start on their education is going to affect us, not only today but in the future. That’s what I look at this as, an investment in our future.”

Some of the volunteers helping with the drive were kids whose classmates will probably stand to benefit from it. Dennisse Duarte, 10, of Holcomb Elementary School was assisting the drive with her friends. She said this is her second year volunteering and explained that she enjoys doing it because, “It helps the other kids so that they can go to school and learn.”

Jennifer Catalan of Genesis Family Health said this year was her first assisting with the drive, and that for her, it is simply a way to give back to the community.

Catalan and her three children, ages 10, 9 and 8, participated in the drive as a family.

“I love the idea of having to go out there and collect for people that are in need,” she said. “Genesis Family Health concentrates on that, so we do our best to collect every day and help as many people as we can so we can give back.”

Ana Guillen, another Genesis employee, said this was her second year helping. Both Guillen and Catalan were stationed at the Walmart Supercenter, and Guillen said the year brought a good turnout and a lot of supportive contributors.

“It’s a great project,” said Janie Perkins, coordinator of supplemental services for USD 457. “It helps many of our students that are in need of having those school supplies at the very beginning of the school year, and I think it makes a big difference just getting started on that first day, not having to worry about having a backpack, having the initial school supplies that they need, and they can just concentrate on their learning.”

Perkins said families benefiting from the drive have always been grateful. She gave as an example the upcoming backpack giveaway on Aug. 2, when she said the “community really comes together to focus on the education of our students of our community.”

“When you see the families coming in with their children, and when the students pick up that backpack with their school supplies, they just have these big smiles on their faces. To us, it just makes it all worth it,” she said.

Perkins still questions whether the needs of every student in Finney County are being met, but she says USD 457 and its partners in the drive are making every effort to meet as much of that need as they can.

“I just want to say thank you to the community and thank you to all our sponsors and everyone that has helped with this effort, just to let them know that they are truly meeting a need that we have in our community and that they’re truly impacting the lives of many of our children that are going to be our future leaders, the ones that are going to be taking care of this community in the future,” she said.