The Ottumwa Courier

August 22, 2013

Never too poor to learn

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — There are children around the world who have nothing until we share, said volunteers gathering "on sale" school supplies.

"Some kids and parents in Ottumwa are looking beyond their own needs and considering the difference a pencil or pen would make in the lives of needy children overseas," David Houfek, a spokesman for the international "Samaritan's Purse" organization, wrote in an email to the Courier.

He said while doing their own back-to-school shopping, Ottumwa families are adding a few extra items that will eventually be shipped to some of the world's neediest kids.

Roger Russ, a member of Northgate Alliance Church in Ottumwa, said he and his wife help organize the project locally.

"Right now," said Russ on Thursday, "the big retailers have all their back-to-school supplies on sale. I just picked up a bunch [of notebooks] for 17 cents."

Americans may not realize just how how much one of those notebooks can mean to a child or how poor some of the world's children are, he said. He has seen a stark contrast between what students here need compared to what students in other nations need to go to school.

When telling local families about some of the items they may want to purchase, he listed "don't forget erasers. Erasers are very important as the students usually have to erase the previous days lessons and reuse the paper."

Former third-world students now living in America have told him they themselves did that as children.

"It just blows your mind," Russ said. "We had a fella from Eastern Europe, and that's one of the things he said. They don't have enough paper; they don't have an endless supply like our kids. Also, pencils; when their pencil got down to a stub, they worried about where their next pencil is coming from."

In Ottumwa, students and parents receive a list at the beginning of the year telling them what they should get in order to start school. At one elementary school, the list includes, but is not limited to: 20 No. 2 pencils, two boxes of crayons, a dozen colored pencils, three dry-erase markers, eight regular magic markers, two glue sticks and one bottle of glue.

On the other hand, wrote Houfek, "for many poverty-stricken children, often a lack of basic supplies is what stands between them and attending school."

Russ agreed. He heard about a little girl overseas who couldn't meet the dress code to attend school. It required students to wear socks, a luxury item she did not own. He said the child received an "Operation Christmas Child" shoe box packed in the United States with school supplies — and socks.

"It's stories like that that get to your heart," Russ said. "For some kids, what we send them, it's all they have. That young man [from Eastern Europe] said he got a shoe box [from OCC] when he was about 13. He remembered thinking this is the first thing he'd ever gotten that was a gift, no strings attached."

Some donors, Russ said, put a photo of themselves in the box or a note.

"One lady at Northgate Alliance Church received three letters back," Russ said.

Though purchases of school supplies are best made right now, Russ said, shoe boxes will be shipped to Minnesota, the regional hub, in about three months. Every box needs a quick inspection.

"No 'war' toys. One country didn't want candy. Another didn't want mirrors" because of religious restrictions on graven images or idolatry. Russ said the non-denominational Samaritan's Purse is respectful of local requests.

"These boxes don't just go random around the world. There is some group that has requested them," he said.

Items to consider are No. 2 pencils, pencil sharpeners, solar calculators, crayons or markers, coloring or picture books, paper notebooks, and school clothes for kids 5-14 also make a good gift.

View the website or call Roger Russ at 641-799-1810.

— To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark