Wheaton fair provides school supplies and services to low-income families
Amy Palumbo knows her organization isn't making a huge dent in parents' pocketbooks — but for her, it's about helping ease back-to-school costs any way she can and connecting parents with other resources in the community.
Low-income families in DuPage County can pick up backpacks and school supplies and receive dental, optical and physical exams for their students at the annual Catholic Charities Back to School Fair from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 8, at the DuPage County Fairgrounds, 2015 Manchester Road, Wheaton.
"We try to cover everything that you need to start school at the fair, either for free or a minimal cost," said Palumbo, program director at Catholic Charities. "It's like a one-stop shop."
Catholic Charities of Lombard started the fair in 1992 as an extension of its other programs for needy families, which include counseling services, transitional and permanent supportive housing, a 16-bed homeless shelter and emergency services that provide families with rent and utilities assistance, clothing, gas cards and other basic needs.
"Our mission is to serve those who are most vulnerable and in need in the community," Palumbo said.
Families attending the fair receive backpacks filled with school supplies for children in kindergarten through fifth grade from the Regional Office of Education. Costco and ComEd also will be giving out roughly 200 backpacks. Catholic Charities provides $10 gift cards for children in sixth through 12th grades.
An estimated 70 vendors also will discuss their services with parents and hand out their own giveaways.
SCARCE, or School and Community Assistance for Recycling and Composting Education, provides teachers and schools with supplies and books throughout the year. At the fair, the organization will have 12,000 books to give to students targeted at preschool children all the way through high school.
"It's helping them because it's low-income kids, so they might not have their own resources to go out and buy books," Kelly Burda of SCARCE said. "It's helping them with literacy because they're more likely to read if they have something they enjoy."
But it's not just about the school supplies, Palumbo said. Parents also will have a variety of services at their fingertips, including information on job referrals, legal needs, voter registration, education and housing, health services, Social Security, nutrition and child development and safety.
"It helps them to be better informed on who they can go to for further assistance," Palumbo said.
For the first time, on-site physical exams will be provided for students by VNA Health Care for $25 or for free with a Medicaid card. The DuPage County Department of Health will provide dental screenings, and vision screenings will be available.
Parents must bring proof of their residency in DuPage County, proof of income and identification for their children. Families must meet a low-income status, although Palumbo said it is pretty generous. A family of four, for example, can't exceed an annual income of $42,642. There are families who sometimes come in with no income, and in that case, they can show food stamp cards in place of proof of income.
"Our motto is we try to err more on the side of they're eligible than they're not," Palumbo said. "You know it's not going to cover everything that's needed, but you do want to provide the assistance that you can. It's helping those that need it, giving back to the community."
Roughly 5,000 families receive help from the fair, and many are involved with other programs of Catholic Charities.
"You see the same faces every year," Palumbo said. "People count on and look forward to attending this fair."
But it simply would not happen without donations from the community, which can be made at cc-doj.org.
"It makes it possible to do this fair every year," Palumbo said. "It couldn't be done without the donations. I don't know how we'd be able to afford to do it."
Palumbo said she knows these families would not be at the fair if they didn't have to be — they're there because they need it that bad. The limited income they have is already stretched thin, she said.
"There are so many people in need, especially with this economic downturn," Palumbo said. "There are so many people that fall out of luck and need that help and support to get back on their feet."
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