At Westwood Elementary School Monday, about 200 families received backpacks full of school supplies, something that families said they needed more than ever this year.

The event was part of the annual Fast Track school supply giveaway hosted by United Way of Johnson County. The event has taken place just before school begins every year for about 20 years. Greenwood Community Schools was the fourth of six school county districts to host the event this year. Franklin Community Schools is holding its event today and Indian Creek’s giveaway is Thursday. The event is via invitation only, with a focus on families who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, but also including families who have dealt with loss of employment or medical issues, said Nancy Lohr Plake, United Way executive director.

This year, organizers expect to serve about 1,800 kids around the county. Last year, the United Way distributed supplies to 1,807 kids, and 2,091 were served in the pandemic-stricken year of 2020.

The event is made possible by donations of school supplies dropped off at local businesses and the Stuff the Bus event, during which people can donate school supplies. This year, schools gave away supplies to 1,785 students, she said.

“This helps families who are trying to make a decision: ‘do we choose to get our kids school supplies or pay the utility bill?’ This frees up income so they can pay their utility bills,” Plake said. “Between backpacks and school supplies, it costs $30 to $40 to get each kid ready, and that doesn’t include shoes or clothes. This helps give them pens, crayons, folders (and more) so they’re ready to start on the first day of school.”

For Barry Snyder brought his son to the event and said Fast Track is helpful, especially amid rising inflation and persistently high gas prices.

“It definitely helps with affording school supplies. We rode our bikes here because gas is so darn expensive,” Snyder said. “The ease of access for school supplies makes it easier for families and children all the way around. Things like this make it easier for everyone in the community.”

Along with school supplies, Fast Track events this year brought back the community resource fair component, something that was cut from the event the past two summers because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Matt Vukusich, senior mentor relationship specialist for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana, staffed one of the tables at Westwood Elementary School’s Fast Track event.

“We work with kids eight to 14 (years old), and we work with them until they’re 18 or graduate high school, whichever comes second. We match them with an adult volunteer mentor who takes them out in the community and does things with them,” Vukusich said. “We take an individualized approach to make sure the kid and their guardian are getting out of it what they want to get out of it and making sure the volunteer is feeling fulfilled.”

Other tables included representatives from the American Red Cross, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women and Infant Children, known as WIC, Great Harvest Food Pantry and Bridges Out of Poverty, Plake said.

Michelle Garis brought her nine-year-old daughter to the event. Along with being a parent, Garis also sees the need for school supplies as a substitute teacher, she said.

“It’s important to come out here and to have resources for people and to provide the tools to be successful,” Garis said. “I’m a sub teacher myself and plenty of kids don’t have the supplies they need and things to keep up and when you’re worried about school supplies, it’s hard to have the energy for class. It’s also good to let people know about resources in the community. Otherwise, you wouldn’t know what’s out there.”

Jerilyn Allen, a kindergarten teacher at Isom Elementary School, worked the event to help families pick backpacks. She sees the value of the event both as a parent and a teacher.

“I think it builds a sense of community within our school district,” Allen said. “School supplies can be so expensive, and it’s great we can provide supplies and other services to our families. As a parent too, I get things on my own daughter’s list and it adds up fast and is expensive, with the expense of book fees and supplies and devices with Chromebooks. This means a lot to give the families what they need to get going.”

The help with the supplies and community resources together are a great start to the school year, parents said.

“Especially with how the economy is right now, it’s a major help for us struggling with everything,” said Kyle Bohlsen, the father of two Isom Elementary students. “This is fantastic, to make sure our kids have the supplies they need. They’re very informative, telling us where all the food pantries are. That’s fantastic.”