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By Carmen Sesin

MIAMI, FL -- After her mother was murdered by her father when she was 1 year-old, Cassandra Gonzalez remained in the care of her grandparents. By the time she was a teenager, her grandfather was blind and the health of her grandmother, who recently passed away, was declining. Gonzalez had no choice but spend her high school years working full time at a fast food restaurant in order to support herself and her grandparents who had raised her with so much love.

At the beginning of each school year, it was an extra burden for Gonzalez to gather enough money to pay for the long list of school supplies required by public schools – it often meant being late with rent or the electricity bill. But before she started her sophomore year she received a ray of light – a donation of supplies from the annual “Fill the Bus” campaign held by the non-profit Communities in Schools (CIS), which focuses on dropout prevention by providing students the resources they need to stay in school.

Cassandra Gonzalez, who is now entering Miami Dade College, received much-needed school supplies while in high school through the Communities in Schools "Fill the Bus" campaign.Cassandra Gonzalez

“That was the best help I could possibly get,” Gonzalez said.

CIS affiliates serving 1.5 million students across the country are collecting donations through its “Fill the Bus” or "Stuff the Bus" campaigns that help children and teens like Gonzalez obtain school supplies that can total over $1,400 a year for high school students.

In a country where the number of needy children in public schools has exploded recently - over 50 percent of students come from low-income families according to the Southern Education Foundation - purchasing school supplies creates real hardships for parents. It could mean less food on the table or not paying the water bill.

The "Stuff the Bus" campaign, part of Communities in Schools, collects school supplies in Waco, TX.Communities in Schools of the Heart of Texas

“We see the parents in tears. It’s such a stress release for the parents who can’t give kids everything,” according to Elizabeth Mejia, President and CEO of CIS of Miami.

The yearly cost of school supplies and school activities can be over $900 for a middle school student and $1,400 for a high school student.

Having a majority low-income population in public schools means many students begin kindergarten already behind their more privileged peers. Not sending kids to school with proper supplies adds to their disadvantage. CIS works with students in the most challenged communities across the country to remove obstacles that prevent them from succeeding in school.

“We make sure they start off on the right foot,” Mejia said.

The "Stuff the Bus" campaign, part of Communities in Schools, collects school supplies in Waco, TX.Communities in Schools of the Heart of Texas

According to the annual Backpack Index released by Huntington Bank in July, equipping students for the school year has shot up in recent years. Since 2007, the cost of supplies and extra curricular activities has gone up 85 percent for elementary school students, 78 percent for middle school students, and 57 percent for high school students.

Required school supplies include uniforms, backpacks, calculators, thumb drives and even hand sanitizer, just to name a few. CIS places large cardboard boxes decorated as yellow school buses at banks, popular clothing stores, and other locations where people can drop off new pencils, notebooks, glue, and other supplies. Although the items may not seem like much, it can total $941 for a middle school child, according to the Backpack Index. Families with more than one child in school can easily spend $3,000 or more when the new school year rolls around.

The "Stuff the Bus" campaign, part of Communities in Schools, collects school supplies in Waco, TX.Communities in Schools of the Heart of Texas

“It’s a real sacrifice for them at the beginning of the school year,” Mejia said.

On a recent weekend in Walton County, Georgia, 93 volunteers collected 100 cases of school supplies for the area's Fill the Bus campaign.

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In addition to “Fill the Bus,” CIS has diverse programs that empower students to stay in school. They have staff inside schools to make sure students’ needs are met.

The "Fill the Bus" campaign in Walton County, Georgia recently collected more than 100 cases of school supplies.Communities in Schools (CIS) Of Walton County

For Gonzalez this was instrumental during her high school years. The CIS site coordinator in her school regularly checked on Gonzalez and her grades.

“It impacted me in a positive way because it showed me I always had someone to turn to … I needed the help,” Gonzalez said.

Despite the hurdles she’s had throughout her young life, Gonzalez just graduated high school and is set to begin classes at Miami Dade College on August 24th.

(For more information on donating to Communities in Schools, see here).

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