The beginning of school is an exciting time of year with new teachers, new classrooms and new subjects. But for some students, it’s also a time of anxiety as they worry about classroom supplies, new clothes and measuring up to everyone else.

Mike and Sue Austin of Chehalis have seen a lot of students who fit in the last category. Both are retired, Mike after 37 years in the real estate business and Sue after 35 years as a teacher and librarian. They have seen many students in need both at school and at the food bank where they volunteer.

Sue and Mike Austin show off two of the backpacks stored in their garage. Other supplies wait to be picked up. Photo credit: Joyce Fink.

“As a teacher, I knew that kids were coming without items,” Sue said. “When I was in the lower grades, I always made sure there were extra materials for the kids. I put them out and they could have them if they needed them.”

When Sue moved to the Chehalis Middle School, she and her husband started providing backpacks and supplies to students on their own. Eventually they got their church, St. John Lutheran, involved in the project. Members donate and the Austins purchase the supplies.

Other churches got involved. This is the second year for the Westminster Presbyterian Church and the first time for Chehalis United Methodist.  Donations are also accepted through the Chehalis Foundation.

Supplies are stored in the Austins garage until they are needed. As of August 21, that meant 6,604 donated items stacked in piles by grade levels. “It’s a process,” Mike said, referring to his Excel sheet.

Shelves full of totes line one wall in the Austins’ garage. Donations can be dropped off any time during the year. Photo credit: Joyce Fink.

Shopping for backpacks and school supplies starts as soon as back-to-school sales begin. Using supply lists from Chehalis schools, the Austins go looking for good buys. Last year they bought backpacks from Walgreen’s that went on sale for fifty cents each. “We bought them all,” Mike said.

Famous Footwear is helping this year and has donated socks and backpacks. “Really nice ones,” Sue said.

The Methodist Church is buying Kleenex, wipes and hand sanitizers for 250 students. An individual is buying lightly used clothing for students who have an “accident” at school.

“Every year is a little more exciting because we have more people on board,” Sue says. “We just want kids to start off on an even keel with everyone else.”

Rick Walters, a Chehalis School District employee, loads a truck with school supplies. Photo credit: Joyce Fink.

Currently there are 151 homeless children in the Chehalis School District with another 100 more in need. “The number of homeless isn’t just the people living on the street,” Sue said. “It’s also those sleeping on the couches of friends, in tents or in campers.”

The Chehalis School District has a special fund for the homeless but $50 per student doesn’t go very far. “Now they don’t have to pay for school supplies, backpacks and socks,” Sue said.

Backpacks and school supplies for the homeless or needy are available through each school in the Chehalis School District. Children just have to request a backpack from their teacher and one will be waiting for them in the school office.

The backpack project is not the only act of service the Austins have been involved in. Sue’s presentations to local clubs encouraging their support for a new food bank building helped make the Greater Chehalis Food Bank a reality.

Mike Austin holds up two of the backpacks donated for school children. Photo credit: Joyce Fink.

Mike, a Chehalis Foundation board member for 10 years and president for seven, helped make the spray park at the Chehalis pool a fun place for families.

Christmas will be a pleasant memory for many families due to Sue’s work with the Forgotten Children project. Last year around 300 people received something from Santa when they were expecting little or nothing. “My mom and dad believed in giving back to the community,” Sue said. “They were good role models for us. They encouraged me and my sister to do things for the community.”

Mike and Sue, together with Craig and Kristy Shanafelt, Sue’s sister and another teacher, sponsor a Running Start scholarship through Centralia College for W.F. West students who can’t afford equipment they need for classes. They also sponsor three $1,000 scholarships for W.F. West graduates going to Centralia College.

A kindergarten student is ready for the first day of school with her new backpack and supplies. Photo credit: Joyce Fink.

“We don’t base the scholarship on high GPA,” Sue said. “We look at what they do in the community.”

Acts of service seem to come naturally to Sue and Mike. Once, when attending a W.F. West basketball game, they saw a player who was wearing well-worn gym shoes. They went to Brunswig’s Shoes, purchased a gift card and signed it, “Fans of yours.” They delivered it through the school office. At the next game, the boy was wearing new gym shoes.

“Giving back to our community is very satisfying,” Sue said. “It makes you feel really good.”

To help with the backpack project, mail a check to the Chehalis Foundation at P.O. Box 1608, Chehalis, WA 98532. Write “for school supplies” on the bottom.

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