Stuff the Bus will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 17 at Sonora Plaza Shopping Center – Near Walmart. Anyone wishing to take cart will be given a shopping list and they can drop the items off as they leave the store. For more information to to donate before the event contact Mark Dyken, Jamestown Family Resource Center, 984-4704, mdyken@jespanthers.org .

The other day, a young man arrived at the Family Resource Center in Jamestown with this story:

He and his wife live in a nearby apartment with their two preschool-age children. Recently, they took in four children of a friend because the children were about to be put into foster care.

The couple worried about how they would get those kids — elementary to high school age — ready for the first day of school.

School starts in a month.

“I’m going to hear some version of that story multiple times before now and the time school starts,” said Mark Dyken, who works for Jamestown School District and the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office as the Family Resource Center/Homeless and Foster Youth liaison.

Every school district in Tuolumne County has some number of children who will not have what they need on the first day of school — no backpack, no colored pencils, no wide-margin notebook paper.

That’s why the Family Resource Center teams up with California Highway Patrol in Jamestown to sponsor a stuff the bus event every year. This is the 14th year, and it will be held Aug 17 outside Walmart.

Last year, they provided backpacks filled with school supplies to 275 children. The need has only grown since then. The young man with the four kids is already on the list for a backpack.

Dyken said it seems like such a simple thing, a backpack, but it has so much more meaning. For a child struggling with any number of family problems — parents’ divorce, illness, addiction, job loss, homelessness — it is a tangible thing that says they belong.

For Dyken and others in schools across Tuolumne County it’s a way to show that child someone cares.

Dyken said one of the biggest problems schools here face is chronic absenteeism and it starts on Day 1 with not being ready for school.

The average percentage of schools across the state reporting chronic absenteeism is 9 percent. All schools in Tuolumne County except Soulsbyville had a higher percentage of chronically absent kids than the state average. At Jamestown Elementary, the rate was 15 percent, Tenaya Elementary was 22.5 percent, Sonora Elementary 10.9 percent. Soulsbyville’s rate was 6.9 percent.

Studies show of children who miss more than 10 percent of the school days, 15 percent of them will not be able to read at grade level by third grade. The problem only gets worse from there.

And absenteeism is the greatest single indicator that someone will be incarcerated at some point in their lives, Dyken said.

At Jamestown, if a child is frequently absent, the parents are asked to come to a meeting to talk about what’s going on.

The first question Dyken asks is, “How can we support you?” This is not a shame thing or punishment. It’s about helping, he said. If the family needs help, the center will look at how to do so — past-due bills, inadequate food of clothing. If they don’t have it they will find someone who does.

Last year they saw about 60 cases.

“Almost every family had some sort of trauma history,” he said.

Connection is key. And that’s why giving a backpack is so important, Dyken said.

“The backpacks are one small way to forge the connection and let students and families know the community cares about their success,” he said. “This is something everyone can be a part of and it has an immediate impact on the community.”

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