Lakewood Ranch woman spearheads drive to provide children with back-to-school supplies.
The Inlets' Diane Brune had seen various back-to-school supply lists being circulated to Manatee County students.
She said many of those lists had more than $150 in items, which she knows can be overwhelming to low income families. So she summed up her concern.
Fortunately, Brune knew that her friend, Country Club's Judy Balmer, has come to the rescue.
Since 2017, Balmer has been the chair of the Back-to-School Backpack Event at the Stillpoint House of Prayer in Bradenton. Three years ago, Stillpoint House of Prayer had to decided to cancel the event since it couldn't afford to run both that event and another that provided free shoes for those in need.
It was decided the shoes were a more pressing issue.
"They couldn't make both projects work," Balmer said. "And the backpacks were going to go away."
With just over two weeks until the backpack event was scheduled in 2017, Balmer started emailing her friends to raise money.
"I got about 150 backpacks together," she said. "I thought, 'Maybe I could do this.'"
That first year built the foundation for this year's event, held July 29 at Stillpoint House of Prayer, in which Balmer bought 538 backpacks. That was after she stuffing 300 backpacks in 2018.
"This is a starter set," Balmer said of the supplies stuffed into the backpacks, which are age-level appropriate. "It doesn't have everything on the lists. I don't even look at the lists. These have notebooks, pens, highlighters, erasers, stick notepads."
The first year she emailed 50 of her friends for help and this year she emailed more than 60. She asks for donations between $15 and $250, and then suggests her friends email their friends to see if they are interested in helping.
This year, more than $5,500 in donations were raised, up from $3,400 in 2018.
From there, Balmer would use one of her specialty skills — shopping. She would go online and search for companies that would give her a price break for buying bulk. She would get together with her friends and go through coupons that might be used. She would drive to stores and check their prices.
This year, she paid an average of about $7 per backpack to an online company. The rest of the supplies came from both online and local stores.
Lake Club's Jenny Buehner calls Balmer a "wheeler-dealer" and is amazed by her shopping skills. "She does so much," Buehner said.
On July 22, Balmer summoned six of her friends (Brune, Buehner, Barb Green, Marilyn Schugg, Dianne Emmermann and Ginny Kaseman to her home to stuff the supplies into the backpacks, which were piled all over her home. The supplies were loaded skyward on a dining room table and the ladies would grab a backpack and then circle the table. The backpacks were separated into age groups (ages 4-15) and the supplies on the table would be changed to reflect that age group's needs.
While it was, indeed, work, the ladies laughed most of the way around the table and they were being plied with lunch.
"We're just here to lend a hand," Brune said. "Judy does this all herself. She is amazing."