JEFFERSON — Ready Kids for School, a countywide school supplies charity that helps some 700 to 1,000 needy children annually, is returning to Jefferson County Fair Park this year, but with some changes due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

This year’s distribution will take place Aug. 14 in the north parking lot of the fairgrounds.

The 19-year-old charity continued to operate even through the height of the pandemic last year, but distributed its school supplies directly through the schools in 2020.

This year, organizers are returning to a big central distribution, but instead of recipients walking in and selecting supplies as traditionally was done before the pandemic, families will be invited to drive through the fairgrounds to pick up school supplies which already have been packed up and set aside for them.

Student participants receive basic school supplies as stipulated by their school, including pencils, notebooks, folders, crayons, loose-leaf paper, scissors, markers and more. The program does not give out hand sanitizer, whiteboards, candy or tissues.

Usually, students receive backpacks as well, but this year the program will be unable to give those out due to the drive-through format of distribution.

Maria Dabel, one of three coordinators for Ready Kids for School who has taken on the role of publicity for the charity, said that the organization is happy to be able to continue to serve needy families throughout Jefferson County even through these challenging times.

“It’s all about the children,” she said. “We want every child to be ready and excited for school.”

Dabel and the other two coordinators work with a committee of eight people and countless volunteers who keep Ready Kids for School running.

The nonprofit has helped more than 13,000 children since its inception in 2002.

The charity works year-round to prepare for the August distribution. As soon as one year’s distribution wraps up, volunteers take inventory and begin work to collect supplies for the next school year.

The nonprofit works with the area schools and retailers to make sure students receive the supplies they need, targeted to their grade and district and the requirements of their specific school.

Ready Kids for School relies upon the generosity of local individuals, businesses and organizations, in order to ensure that local students of all ages start the school year prepared and with the right materials, whatever their economic background.

The program is designed to help families that are experiencing hardships, whose parents currently are unemployed or underemployed, and those in government programs.

Ready Kids for School aims to serve all needy children and teens attending any school district centered in Jefferson County or any home-schooler in need residing within the county.

To make the distribution as efficient as possible, recipients are asked to apply through the Jefferson County Human Services Department or the Jefferson County Workforce Development Center.

The charity got its start as an outreach effort of Jefferson’s Immanuel United Methodist Church, under the direction of Dave Mattoon and then-Pastor Nancy Carmichael.

For many years, Gail Slight oversaw the program. This year, Slight has stepped back to allow other longtime members of the organization to take the lead.

The group’s mission statement reads: “Ready Kids for School gives all children the tools they need to start the school year and help them to a bright future through education.”

In accordance with federal law, Ready Kids for School does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, religious affiliation, political beliefs or disability.

In its first year in Jefferson, Ready Kids for School served around 200 youngsters, all in the basement of the Jefferson church. The second year, it joined with other Methodist churches from around the county and did distributions from all of those locations.

However, it soon became clear that the need in the county outstripped the space the small churches had to offer. So the program moved to Jefferson County Fair Park, serving needy families from throughout the county all at one site.

The need has fluctuated from year to year, in 2009 serving more than 1,000 individuals and in 2019 serving only around 600. As pandemic job cuts hit area families in 2020, that number was back up to around 760, and organizers are preparing to serve somewhere around that many again this year as hardships persist throughout the area.

“Before Ready Kids for School was started, Human Services representatives said that if needy students received any help at all, it came through a mishmash of sources,” Dabel said.

“In many cases, teachers or Human Services representatives dug into their own pockets to make sure young people had the pencils, paper, notebooks and other essentials they needed to start out the year right,” the coordinator said.

The nonprofit is happy to be able to continue its mission this year, Dabel said, though with some accommodations to keep people safe from COVID-19.

The distribution will take place from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Aug. 14 at Jefferson County Fair Park. Participants should enter through the north parking lot, and will be directed from there.

“There’s no need to come early,” Dabel noted. “There will be enough school supplies for every child registered.”

People should bring the forms they used to register their child(ren) and prepacked supplies will be ready for them.

However, she noted that there will be no school supplies available after the distribution.

Dabel noted that donations were down last year, as not everyone knew the charity continued to operate during the pandemic, while others who usually might have donated found themselves in economic straits.

The organization accepts monetary donations year-round. People can write out checks to “Ready Kids for School” and send them to the Jefferson County Workforce Development Center at 874 Collins Road, Jefferson, WI 53549, or the Jefferson County Human Services Department at 1541 Annex Road, Jefferson, WI 53549.

The nonprofit also is accepting donated school supplies. People can bring items to the Workforce Development Center or the Jefferson County Human Services offices, Dabel said.

People with any questions can call (920) 674-7500.

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