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Back to school shopping is in full swing, which means the organizers of the Stuff the Bus program are gearing up to collect supplies for students in need.

 For the fifth year the Stuff the Bus program is collecting school supplies for economically disadvantaged students in the area. Anyone interested in donating can drop off supplies at participating locations (see information box).

It’s difficult for some families to purchase supplies that average between $60 and $70 per elementary student and $80 to $90 for each high schooler, according to local administrators.

“It’s a hardship on a lot of families, especially those with multiple children in school,” Joe McMahon, principal at Radley Elementary in East Helena, said. “We distribute them all year long — as students run out of supplies or when a backpack rips, they come to the office and we get a new one for them. It’s very useful.”

There are about 500 students in the second-through-fifth-grade building, and McMahon said over 80 families used the free supplies last year.

The program was started by Marcia Wall, of Helena, who worked three jobs to help buy her siblings new school clothes while she was attending college. She believes all students should have something new for their first day, and she knows what it feels like not to.

Later, while working as a counselor at Helena Middle School, she was touched by another teacher who bought a coat for a student who always appeared cold.

“He always said it was the best day of his life,” she said about the student in an earlier interview. “I think it is because someone cared and noticed...”

After that came an incident involving several students who weren’t able to go on a school field trip to the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman because their families couldn’t afford the fee.

Wall felt that was unacceptable so she paid for them herself but soon took up a collection.

The idea quickly gained momentum and became the Angel Fund, which helps Helena students with school clothes, supplies, field trips and scholarships for graduating seniors.

Anderson ZurMuehlen is one of over 42 businesses and churches in the Helena area collecting supplies for students in all Helena schools, as well as surrounding schools such as Lincoln, Townsend and Wolf Creek.

Aja Rail, with AZ, said everyone in the company pulled together to support the cause. There were even competitions between floors in the building to earn coupons allowing employees to wear jeans to work.

“We really made a game out of it, but everybody here is just so wonderful about being excited to give back to the community, especially when we know the need is so high,” Rail said.

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Last year, the Angel Fund’s Stuff the Bus program collected enough supplies to help more than 1,000 students.

Supplies will be collected until Aug. 17, and on Aug. 20, volunteers and Angel coordinators will sort supplies and unload the bus at HMS. School representatives should pick up their supplies between 10 and 11 a.m.

Families who need supplies for their students should contact their designated schools the week before school starts, Aug. 22 to 26. Distribution is handled differently at each school.

Anything that’s left over is stored in the district warehouse for summer school kids, Wall said.

“Not much left, but whatever is will go to students who need it,” she added.

Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or

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