AUGUSTA — Kayleigh Chamberlain and her sister, Lily, sat in the back of their parents’ car Sunday and pawed excitedly through backpacks filled with school supplies they had just received from Greater Augusta Back to School Program volunteers.

Kayleigh used one word to describe how she felt about returning — in person — to school.

“Yay!” the third-grader said, holding up both her arms, backpack cradled in her lap.

Lily, a fifth-grader, said she, too, is looking forward to going back to school in person but said she does not want to wear a mask, which will be required of Maine students when they return to their classrooms for the first time since school buildings closed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The girls’ father, Luke Chamberlain, said his daughters are tired of being cooped up and he thinks it is time to move ahead and reopen schools to students.

And restarting school should be a bit easier for the families who picked up backpacks full of school supplies — including crayons, notebooks and pens and pencils — at the school supply giveaway, which, now in its fourth year, distributed more than 700 of the well-supplied backpacks, mostly on Sunday afternoon, to hundreds of families.

“The need is so there. We need to help this little bit, to help get kids feeling good about starting school,” said Lina Michaud, the leader of the Augusta Elks Club, who organized the giveaway with her husband, Mike Michaud, and other volunteers.

Following the event, Mike Michaud said all but about 60 of the backpacks were given away, and those 60 were distributed to be given out at local schools. About a week ago, the group had 600 packs to give away, but donors provided another 100 or so leading up to the event.

Educators volunteering Sunday at the school supply giveaway hold up backpacks for children to select at the Augusta Civic Center. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Dozens of cheerful volunteers, some dancing as they worked, passed out backpacks to families at the parking lot of the Augusta Civic Center.

The event had been planned for inside Cony High School, but was moved to an outdoor event due to the ongoing pandemic, with families staying inside their vehicles and waiting in line in the parking lot, then driving alongside tents where volunteers gave them backpacks filled with various school supplies, depending on which grade the students are entering.

It ran like an oversized drive-thru.

Becca Douin, a special education teacher at Hall-Dale Middle School and an Augusta Elk in her fourth year volunteering for the giveaway, said she was excited to see students and said knowing that in-person classes will return, at least to some extent, makes her happy and excited.

“Kids need that structure and face-to-face teaching,” Douin said between passing out backpacks.

Students were asked what color backpack they wanted, and some received character-themed packs, such as Spiderman or Hello Kitty, with Paw Patrol a popular request.

“You’re welcome. Have a good school year,” several volunteers, some of them teachers, said to families as they drove away with the free items, which were offered to families of from greater Augusta.

Lina Michaud said she planned to approach other Elks at the group’s upcoming state meeting to encourage all 20 Elks lodges in Maine to take on similar school supply giveaways in their communities and spread them across the state.

Educators volunteering Sunday at the school supply giveaway hold up blue knapsacks for children to select at the Augusta Civic Center. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Anthony Gause, president of the Maine Elks Association, was on hand for the event Sunday in Augusta and said the Michauds, who hope to collect 1,000 backpacks from donors for next year’s giveaway, did an amazing job organizing it.

“I hope this program will flourish and help the kids in the community,”said Gause of Augusta.

He said expanding it across the state is attainable, but will take a lot of work.

This year, in Augusta, the program was not just an Elks program. Other organizations and businesses — including Kiwanis, Boy Scouts, Hannaford, city employees, members of the Calumet Club, where volunteers filled the backpacks for the event, and others — took part in the giveaway and joined in to make it a community event.

Jessica Wheeler of Winthrop was there with her son, Cayden, who is in the sixth grade. She works in behavioral health and, in that role, took part in an Aug. 6 food giveaway, also in the parking lot of the Civic Center, at which more than 1,200 boxes of food were given away to area residents.

She said the two events make it clear there is a need for help for many families in the area. She said the backpacks of supplies could make it a bit easier for them to prepare for the return of school.

“This is people helping each other,” Wheeler said. “It does take a village.”

Mike and Renee Munsey of Chelsea brought their sons, who attend Chelsea Elementary School. Grant, who is in fifth grade, and Henry, a third-grader, each went home with a backpack.

The couple said they are looking forward to schools reopening and said the boys, like most other students, do better learning directly from teachers, versus online learning.

Renee Munsey said being in school with peers provides her boys with socialization skills they are unlikely to develop if separated from others due to the pandemic.

Augusta Superintendent James Anastasio, one of many volunteers, said the event ran well and filled a need that will probably always be there, but was perhaps was more extreme this year because students cannot share school supplies.

Despite the large turnout, the event did not appear to create traffic issues. Michaud credited Bruce Chase, the city’s director of Parks & Recreation, and other city staff for creating a workable process for moving vehicles into and through the parking lot.

The event was scheduled to begin at 1 p.m., but started closer to 12:30 p.m. because volunteers were ready and a line of cars had already formed.

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