With tear-filled eyes and an immense sense of gratitude, Ashley Stanbury stood in a long line with hundreds of mothers in northeast Calgary, waiting for a free backpack filled with back-to-school supplies for her children.
The donations, collected and distributed by NE Calgary Moms, a meet-up group, allowed many parents to cross essential items off their back-to-school shopping lists.
“They put lots of great things in the backpacks like water, vitamins, toques, gloves, socks, and school supplies,” Stanbury said.
“The stuff they give releases the pressure off of the parents in order to not have to worry too much financially about what extras they need to get.”
The event was held at Pine Ridge Community Association Hall. Inside the venue, which was also donated to the host the event, volunteers stocked 300 backpacks with essential items.
The turnout was unprecedented, and as donations depleted over 100 parents joined a waitlist for a stocked backpack. NE Calgary Moms says it is still receiving requests online for backpacks.
Jenn Jacobson founded NE Calgary Moms in 2015 when she noticed a lack of free playgroups and social opportunities for mothers in northeast Calgary. The group now has over 2,000 members.
Ironically, Jacobson says she started the backpack program after the Salvation Army’s back-to-school event ran out of donations, highlighting a growing trend of charitable organizations being stretched thin during the current cost-of-living crisis.
“It’s heartbreaking because we want to help everyone, but at the same time I’m proud we beat last year’s goal,” Jacobson said.
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Despite current economic conditions, the Retail Council of Canada’s (RCC) Back-to-School 2023 Shopping Survey shows 84.6 per cent of Canadians expect to spend the same amount — or more— on back-to-school supplies this year compared to 2022.
“Canadians continue to be cautious of how they spend their money because of higher interest rates and inflation, but they continue to spend on basics and necessities for their family when it matters,” said Michelle Wasylyshen, the national spokeswoman of the Retail Council of Canada.
The shopping survey also said 81 per cent prefer to shop in person at big box retailers, and more parents are focused on purchasing lower-priced items than in years past.
To help alleviate the fiscal strain year-round for families, NE Calgary Moms’ Jacobson set up an unstaffed donation table outside her home, full of free food, allowing moms to discreetly select items they need.
“This group has helped ease my mind a lot when we are running low on groceries in the home,” Stanbury said. “I can always rely on the food distributions to get us by.”
According to Statistics Canada, parents will experience the biggest price shock this fall when it comes to school lunches.
National prices for bread, rolls and buns are 8.1 per cent higher this July compared to last year. Prices for cookies and crackers are up 12.4 per cent and cheese costs 6.9 per cent more.
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Meanwhile, NE Calgary is doing everything it can to help families deal with rising costs.
“I believe NE Calgary Moms has solidified community resilience and built authentic relationships and that’s what the group is all about.” said Tatiana Meneses-Sab, NE Calgary Moms administrator.
“We saw the demand and we are trying to fill in the gap.”
In addition to being a donation recipient, Ashley Stanbury says volunteering her time with the group is her way of giving back to an organization that has kept her afloat financially.
“My husband and I picked up the backpacks from the donors and delivered them, we also helped set up the distribution. To see other people and their children smiling at the event is nice because I know a lot of families are struggling in the city,” she said.
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The Calgary Board of Education (CBE) says parents who find it challenging to pay the school fees can fill out the central fee waiver application online.
“We are aware that some families might be facing difficulties in meeting the school fee requirements. Please know that we are here to support you during this time,” said Bryan Weismiller, the Calgary Board of Education communications advisor.
There is a backlog of waiver applications, so parents can expect to wait between eight to 12 weeks for the CBE to process a waiver claim.
To continue assisting members, NE Calgary Moms says it needs coffee gift cards for its parents’ meetings and donations such as non-perishable food items, feminine hygiene products, and bus tickets.
It also requires a commercial space to store donations.
That support will also reach beyond Calgary, too. In addition to the 300 backpacks NE Calgary Moms gave to local kids this fall, they also gifted 100 brand new backpacks to students in Jamaica. They hope for an influx of donations so they can continue to serve moms and children in need.
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