The Bartow ENGAGE Chamber Young Professionals’ community project is, “Stuff the Bus,” which includes collecting school supply donations for Polk County’s students in need. The campaign generally begins mid-July and continues through mid-August – just in time for school.

“The number of homeless children and youth in the Polk County School System is growing year after year,” said Dee Dee Wright, Polk County School Board Project Hearth Specialist. “Last year we identified more than 2800 homeless people throughout Polk County,” she said. Homeless children and youth are students who lack a fixed regular and adequate nighttime residence. Families are considered homeless who have “doubled up” at a residence, or are living in substandard housing or hotels. Women with children living in a charity home are also considered homeless by Project Hearth – the Polk County School Board’s services department for homeless students. The average age of a school-aged homeless person is nine years old. It has been estimated that for the school year 2016-2017, there are more than 3300 school-aged, enrolled homeless children in Polk County.

Ms. Wright’s office works to address the needs of Polk’s homeless students year round.

Anyone may donate to the drive by bringing donations to the Bartow Chamber of Commerce in July or August.  

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Kathryn Bevilacqua-Ely of the Bartow Chamber. “When we found out how many kids in Polk were homeless, we couldn’t believe it. Many of our ENGAGE members have school-aged children themselves, and it’s shocking to realize that there are so many children in our area without a stable place to live,” she added. “The Bartow community is so supportive, last year they generously brought in school supplies for these children. This year we are hoping for another great turnout, every little bit helps.

Anyone wishing to make a monetary donation to homeless school-aged children in Polk County may do so by writing a check to the Polk County Education Foundation and writing “Hearth” in the memo line of the check. Checks may be dropped off at the Bartow Chamber, anytime. Donations will be used to purchase caps and gowns for seniors, pay for school physicals and pay for needed birth certificates.

According to Wright, the items most needed this time of year are school supplies including pens (red, black and blue), #2 pencils, notebook paper, composition notebooks, pencil sharpeners, glue bottles, scissors (blunt end), and 2 gallon ziplock bags. In addition, hygiene items are needed such as shampoo, conditioner, bodywash or soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes are much needed. Gift cards for food and gas are also appreciated. Cash or check donations may be dropped off at the Chamber. Make all checks payable to the Polk County Schools Hearth Project.

ENGAGE is a program designed to offer social networking, professional development and volunteer opportunities to ambitious young professionals, ages 21 to 42. Membership in the group is free to Chamber members, and $50 a year for non-members, and is geared toward improving career opportunities, developing leadership abilities, building personal networks and giving back to the greater Bartow community. Members make valuable connections with peers from various industries and have access to prominent and influential leaders.

For more information on ENGAGE, or the Stuff the Bus campaign, call the Chamber at (863) 533-7125, or email  KATHRYN BEVILACQUA-ELY HERE.