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Emergency workers swoop into disaster zones after floods, fires and hurricanes tending to the sick and injured, sheltering the homeless and providing food to the hungry.

The Kids in Need Foundation comes a little later, with “second responders” bearing something meant to help get life in a community back to normal: pencils, notebooks, crayons and backpacks.

The national philanthropy based in Roseville has given away $1 billion worth of school supplies — in disaster areas and to benefit schools in low-income neighborhoods around the United States — on a mission to ensure that every child is prepared to learn and succeed in the classroom. In 2017 alone, they gave away more than $125 million in supplies to help 6.3 million kids.

“When students have the supplies they need, their behavior, attendance, ability to learn and self-esteem improves dramatically,” said Executive Director Dave Smith.

The foundation surveyed 10,000 recipient teachers, and 82 percent said classroom participation increased significantly as a result of the free supplies. Two-thirds said student behavior and attendance also improved dramatically.

Free supplies also take pressure off teachers who, on average, spend nearly $600 a year of their own money to buy classroom supplies that neither the district nor the students’ families can afford.

“I thought I had died and gone to heaven when I first came to shop here,” said Sara Siebold, a retired St. Paul high school teacher who regularly stopped by the Kids in Need’s Roseville storefront to pick up supplies for her students. Siebold was so touched by the foundation’s work she now volunteers there each week.

Providing supplies allows students to feel equal to their peers.

“My students frequently come to school without pencils and other supplies. It’s embarrassing for them to ask,” one Minneapolis teacher said in response to the Kids in Need Foundation survey. “Having access allows them to be like everyone else.”

Big local donors

A national school and office products association first started what would become the Kids in Need Foundation in 1995. The association fizzled but the foundation lives on. Originally based in Dayton, Ohio, the foundation moved its headquarters and warehouse to Minnesota to be near some of its biggest donors: Target and 3M. More than 90 percent of its support comes from corporations, which donate a mix of supplies and money.

In the early years, companies would donate excess inventory and overruns. But as manufacturers and retailers have gotten more efficient, there are fewer mistakes to donate, Smith said, so the foundation has been buying more items.

Kids in Need has multiple programs for distributing the supplies. It sends boxes with $500 worth of supplies to teachers in needy areas who apply. Corporations can sponsor and host a school supply packing event and send those filled backpacks of pencil boxes to designated schools.

Its “Second Responder” program sends supplies to schools in disaster areas. In the past year, supplies have been sent to children in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico who survived hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

After a disaster, getting kids back in the classroom, ready to learn with notebooks and pencils, helps communities recover and start to feel normal again, Smith said.

School and foundation leaders often hold a school assembly and pull back a curtain to reveal the new supplies and backpacks. The delight and gratitude expressed by children who have sometimes lost everything they own is inspiring and humbling, Smith said.

The foundation also oversees 41 resource centers across the country where teachers from low-income areas can browse aisles of free supplies and select what they need. The foundation operates a resource center, which resembles a store, at its Roseville headquarters, and works with local partners to operate the out-of-state centers.

Lori Robel, a retired St. Francis schoolteacher, volunteers there once a week.

“As a former teacher, just the thought of having something like this is unbelievable,” Robel said. “They just can’t believe it when they walk in. They get to take 100 items.”

Resource for teachers

To visit the resource center in Roseville, teachers must work at schools where 70 percent or more of the student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Teachers may come once a semester.

Peggy Krenik, a second-grade teacher at the Heights School, a charter school in Columbia Heights, filled her cart with notebooks, pencil cases, books and other supplies on a recent trip.

“It’s just nice to have resources for them,” Krenik said. “A lot of these kids don’t bring in the items they need. As a teacher you buy things.”

But that gets expensive and puts teachers in the uncomfortable spot — buying for their students at the expense of their own families.

Fifth-grade teacher Heather Rome said the families of many of her students at Learning for Leadership Charter School in Columbia Heights struggle to afford supplies. She said folders and notebooks are especially needed, critical to learning because they keep her students organized and focused. Just having a full classroom set of scissors can make lessons more efficient and fun, she said, because kids are not anxiously waiting their turn.

“I wouldn’t be able to do half the things I do but for these supplies,” Rome said. “It’s awesome.”

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804