School supply giveaway grows with poverty in suburban school districts

When Nancy Morgan-Maxwell walked through the doors at First United Methodist Church in Blue Springs Tuesday morning, she had one dollar to carry her and her son for the next two weeks.

No way she could afford to get her 14-year-old equipped for his first day of high school in a week. That weighed heavy on Morgan-Maxwell.

But this single mother has lived on the edge of a financial cliff for a while. Her job at a Blue Springs motel is hardly enough to pay all the bills and buy food. Add school supplies and it becomes too tough to hang on without help, Morgan-Maxwell said.

So when she saw the rows of new backpacks, boxes of school supplies and new shoes to be given out by the Community Services League for free to people in poverty, “I had to try and hold back the tears,” Morgan-Maxwell said.

“This is a huge answer,” she said, her voice cracking. “I didn’t even have enough money to walk to the dollar store and buy him something. He wouldn’t have had a backpack, shoes, nothing. Now I can breathe. Isn’t it great?”

Morgan-Maxwell and her son are among the growing numbers of families living in poverty in eastern Jackson County suburban communities in Blue Springs, Independence, Fort Osage, Grain Valley and Oak Grove.

The Community Services League, which has served these suburban areas for 20 years, has seen the numbers of families looking to them for help jump up, particularly in the last five years.

“We used to think of poverty contained to certain sections of urban America, but there are a lot of people who have lived in the suburban areas for a long time that are just not doing so well,” said Doug Cowan, president of the Community Services League. “And those numbers are ticking upward.”

The Brookings Institute, in a 2014 report, addressed the rapid rise of suburban poverty, calling it “a trend experienced by almost every major metro area.”

Kansas City is no different.

Families getting help from the Community Services League live at 150 percent of the federal poverty level or below it. A family of four at the top of that poverty level would be living on about $36,000 a year, Cowan said.

The median income in Independence, for example, is $44,000. Still, in Independence, Cowan said, “seven out of 10 kids are in households struggling with economic insecurity. … People in suburban America are not as well off as some suppose them to be.”

School leaders may be among those who see the poverty first, when students from poor families sign up to receive free and reduced-price lunches.

In the Fort Osage School District, for example, the percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch has increased every year since 2009 from 44 percent to 58 percent last school year. Further east in Oak Grove, the percentages are up too, from 35 percent in 2010 to 41 percent last year.

In Blue Springs, the number of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch has crept up each year from 20.4 percent in 2009 to around 31 percent in the last two years.

Community Services League in Blue Springs serves about 250 families a month, and “fills a critical gap for families in our community,” said Katie Woolf, a spokeswoman for the Blue Springs school district. “Last year 359 of our district students received services through CSL.”

This week the Community Services League expected to give away more than 3,000 back packs to suburban school children.

Melodie Chrisman, site manager at the Blue Springs school supply giveaway, is not surprised.

“We collect all year long,” she said. “We probably save a family of two about $200 on school supplies alone,” she said.

Chrisman said Tuesday’s event was “probably about a $40,000 or $50,000 event. And it is all donations from the community. We put out the call and they answer.”

Every child signed up for help from CSL received a backpack, a new pair of sneakers, and all the school supplies they would need according to their grade level — everything from calculators and binders to note paper and crayons.

Chrisman, who has volunteered with CSL for 30 years before going to work for them four years ago, said people want to help “because they see that poverty is not just the guy with a sign at the interstate ramp. It’s their neighbor down the street with three kids who always look immaculate, but at night mom doesn’t eat.”

Seeing more and more families come through CSL’s door at back-to-school time motivates Chrisman and her many volunteers to reach deeper into the community for donations.

This year women at a local church helped by spending hours decorating with colorful cloth 150 pairs of girls’ flip flops, something extra to make back-to-school special for the children, Chrisman said.

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc