08/20/2013 11:41 am ET Updated Oct 20, 2013

Back to School Supply Drives for Older Youth

I've been a social worker for over a dozen years and worked in human services for nearly 20. I've coordinated all sorts of drives and events and donations. Without exception, the most difficult group to attract needed donations has been teenagers. This was most evident when I worked in foster care and would seek donations of gifts at the holidays -- we would often receive a handful of CD players (in 2006!) and get a lecture on gratitude. Or I was told they were old enough to understand not getting a gift. Really? Eventually, I was able to turn that narrative around and start gift card drives so the youth could select their own gifts and have the pleasure of going shopping. Those gift card drives are flourishing at two local agencies where I worked and give me pleasure each year.

There's a similar challenge working with older youth during back-to-school drives. I volunteer with the LGBTQ Community Center in Pittsburgh. Some of the youth involved in the GLCC have family, but perhaps not much money to spare. So, purchasing the things that I remember being free in high school -- not so much. Other of our young LGBTQA youth (gay and straight for short) don't have family support, often don't have a place to live but they are trying to continue with their education.

Nonetheless, child-sized backpacks and boxes of crayons aren't enough to get them on their way. Vulnerable youth in their teen years really need us to be "the village" -- while the youth at our center come from diverse family settings, many of them are among the homeless youth (estimated to account for 40 percent of all homeless youth) in our region who come to the GLCC for support. Helping them get reconnected or maintain their connection to school is an important part of our outreach.

Here is my list of thought-provoking donations you might not have considered for a back-to-school drive:

  • Messenger bags and laptop cases -- Did you receive a new bag as a freebie at a recent conference? Perhaps you recently upgraded and your "old" bag is still in good condition. Maybe you never really used that backpack from REI. Adult sized and "themed" bags are much-needed. Some of the youth do have laptops or tablets thanks to generous family members or the rules of inheritance. A reliable case -- not so much. For some, a messenger bag is more comfortable or easy to manage -- and some of the youth have disabilities so giving them a choice is a very respectful thing to do.
  • Calculators I've seen a dozen tweets from parents bemoaning the purchase of calculators for kids who already own advanced cell phones. Most of our kids have pre-paid phones with minimal features, not smart phones. So your outgrown calculator with trig functions could mean the difference between their participation in a higher level math class (and college) or being forced to (re)take the class that fits their tools.
  • Hygeine Products. High school students need deodorant, tampons, pads, shaving cream and razors, good soap and often on-the-go products like disposable wipes when they don't have regular access to a bathroom. Sometimes the shelter bus comes before they get in line for the shower. Sometimes the water is turned off until payday. Sometimes they are simply exhausted from school, activities and their PT job. None of these items can be purchased with food stamps (SNAP) so if there's no extra cash in the household , they aren't purchased.
  • "Fancy Supplies" -- protractors, fine tipped pens, art supplies, cooking class supplies, sewing class supplies, things I call "fancy" just to differentiate them from the everyday. I took a semester of sewing when my dad was laid off so there was no money to pay for the required supplies. Everyone else made stuffed animals, I used the teachers leftover fabric to make an ugly sweatshirt and swallowed humiliation with each stitch. I never sewed again. It is heartbreaking for a youth with talent and a dream be unable to pursue it -- at the tender age of 14 -- because no one has the cash to purchase the needed supplies.
  • Gift Cards -- Some youth might like to select their own backpack and binder. Others could sure use a quick meal between school and work. Some live for the joy of a Starbucks treat. And others have certain needs when it comes to deodorants and maxipads - perhaps a fragrance sensitivity or they might even have coupons. This one is about the dignity of choice and the life skill of managing your resources.

Now don't get me wrong, these youth still need paper and binders and pens and, yes, crayons and all of that. But there are a few unique ways you can help:

  • Select a bag (backpack, messenger bag, etc) and, as a family, fill it. Do you have gently used staplers, rulers, protractors and what not? Put them in the bag. Can you pick up some basic school supplies -- paper, binder, pens? Add them to the bag. Look for coupons and sales at the drug stores to purchase some personal hygeine items. And -- most important -- talk with your family about these issues. There might be kids at school who could use a friend or an ally. Your kids might have even more creative ways to get involved. How about giving up a family dinner night and putting that cash toward a gift card to donate with the bag?
  • Work donation. You bring the bag, your coworkers bring the supplies. Send an email and ask the team to help fill two or three or more bags. Maybe the marketing team handles personal care products while accounting (of course!) scouts for calculators. Perhaps your employer will make a matching donation? Because the donations can be gently used this is a project where all coworkers can contribute -- a handful of pens is just as valuable as anything else.
  • Group Project. Bowling Team? Book Club? Youth Group? How about youth activities? Ask the group to get involved. Maybe a drive isn't viable, how about cash donations -- pass the bag? -- and that can be donated directly.
  • Clean Out. Have your college age or older kids' rooms sat unchanged for years? This might be the incentive you need to make a first sweep and find those items that could be put to a new purpose with a young person. I highly advise you ask your adult child but you might find its a good way to get these items out into the community rather than occupying your attic.


These backpacks from a conference in Pittsburgh were donated to youth at the GLCC a few years ago and I still see them all over town.

Any suggestions on your part?

High school can be treacherous when you have to contend with poverty, homelessness, family rejection, racism and the ongoing constriction of resources in the public schools. Creating a safe space to learn can begin with those of us who can provide at least some of the resources needed to succeed.

I am working with the LGBT Community Center in Pittsburgh -- the GLCC -- to collect items for our youth, ages 13-25 (older ones in college.) We hope to collect 50 backpacks with items and so far we have about 25 bags, but not quite that much content for the bags.

In other cities, do a quick web search for organizations working with older youth and contact them to find out how you can help.

To learn more about the challenges LGBTQA youth face, I highly suggest reading the GLSEN 2011 National School Climate Survey.