By late morning, the line still stretched all the way out to the field on the outskirts of .
But Diane Formoso wasn’t worried.
“Oh, we will,” she said with absolute certainty when asked if her organization would have enough supplies to give every child in line what they would need to go back to school.
Backpacks. Paper. Pencils. Hand sanitizer. Tissues. New socks and underwear.
Formoso and her crew of enterprising helpers expected about 3,000 children at Caring For Kids’ annual Ready to Learn Fair on Saturday, but the number exceeded that—to the point where she had to make a trip to their warehouse to pick up more binders—before noon.
“For most of them, this is it,” she said of the families from the Clover Park, Steilacoom and University Place School Districts, all of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. “Some of these kids are lucky to get three meals a day.”
The fair officially began at 9 a.m., but organizers opened the doors to a surging crowd an hour early. Some of them lined up before dawn, sleeping on the ground outside the school.
One mother of two CPSD students—with a baby on the way—stood in line for more than three hours despite being put on bed rest by her doctor.
“I’m exhausted,” she said. “But I can’t afford it otherwise. The (school-supplies) list has gotten bigger—things the teachers used to provide, now we have to supply them.”
In addition to school supplies and free immunizations, eye and dental exams and haircuts, each family could fill one white plastic garbage bag per child with donated clothing heaped high on tables in the school gym. There were sweaters and pants, winter hats and scarves—and 5,000 pairs of new shoes donated by World Vision.
Caring For Kids board member Pat Hildebrandt said that the shoes were a welcome surprise.
“I think the important thing is for the children to feel that they have what everyone else has,” she said. “The school supplies, the clothes— and the shoes are a bonus.”
Despite the nice weather on Saturday, volunteer Elizabeth Harvey said she was right where she wanted to be—helping Hildebrandt organize the shoes.
“I don’t go boating, fishing or swimming,” she said. “I’d rather be here.”
Their efforts were clearly appreciated.
As one woman left the gym, loaded down with white bags, she stopped to smile at the volunteers manning the door.
“Thank you guys,” she said, her voice heavy with emotion. “For being here.”
Another woman said that the fair takes some of the burden off the cost of sending three children to school. This was her fourth year lining up early in the morning.
“I can get hats for the winter, a few sweaters and shirts,” she said. “Shoes for my youngest and new backpacks. I really appreciate them being here for us.”
Formoso said Caring For Kids spent about $50,000 on the fair, its second-largest event of the year after the Holiday Fair in December. In addition to receiving some money from the City of Lakewood and a grant from the Carol Milgard Center, the St. Leo’s Food Connection provided a free lunch of hot dogs, fruit, veggies, chips, cookies and milk.
Caring For Kids will host similar events later in the month at Springbrook Park and the Tillicum Community Center.
“It’s the everyday stuff that is costing money,” Formoso said. “And we never have any idea of how many families will show up.”
But board member June Williams said that Formoso is a force to be reckoned with.
“She is amazing,” she said. “People just love to help her. I know it is for the cause, but without her, I don’t know if this would happen.”
The sheer number of children in line was startling to some of the volunteers. It was not uncommon for families to cycle through the school-supply stations with four or five backpacks. Some of the littlest recipients could barely carry them once they were full.
“It’s surprising how many people are coming through,” said Chad Wirth, who was manning the tissue-box table in the cafeteria with his wife Roberta, welcoming people and making sure that just one box was being placed in each backpack. “It’s awesome—it’s like Christmas for these kids.”
Patti Painton, who, like the Wirths, was volunteering through The Church at Lakewood, felt similarly.
“It’s awesome to see their faces light up,” she said. “They’re so excited to get something new that isn’t a hand-me-down.”
And that is what makes it worth it to Formoso, a former school-bus driver.
“This is what I live for,” she said. “Saving kids—that’s what I do."