Kailey, 7, of Silverdale, looks over the items on the table during Operation Homefront’s annual Back-to-School Brigade. (Mark Krulish/Kitsap News Group)

Back-to-School Brigade helps military kids gear up

BREMERTON — The phrase “back to school” often evokes images of children buzzing up and down the aisles of a local store in search of school supplies featuring their latest favorite cartoon character or superhero. Although in today’s digital age, such a memory might now be replaced with the “add to cart” button on Amazon.

No matter how one chooses to shop, the expense associated with another year’s worth of school supplies can be difficult for some families — especially in Bremerton and Silverdale, where families in the military, which can often struggle to make ends meet, comprise a larger-than-average portion of both communities.

But there was some relief for area school children waiting for them at American Legion Post 149 in Bremerton, which hosted Operation Homefront’s annual Back-to-School Brigade.

Over the course of two days in mid-August, 300 local students were able to select a backpack and choose from tables with brand new school supplies piled high. Boxes of pens, pencils, erasers, notebooks, calculators, rulers, crayons, glue and more were ready to be snatched up by eager students.

“They get a backpack, and a set of school supplies so they get started on the right foot,” said Olivia Burley, the senior director of Operation Homefront. “We know that it’s expensive, the list of supplies every year seems to grow longer and longer every year.”

A community affair

Since 2002, Operation Homefront, a national nonprofit organization, has been in the business of supporting these families through various charitable event. This year, the organization is celebrating giving out its 300,000th backpack to a military child.

But because so much of the event is driven by volunteers, Back-to-School Brigade has the intimate feel of a local community event.

While donations come from a wide variety of sources, many supplies come directly from local Dollar Tree stores where residents can purchase extra items to be collected by Operation Homefront for distribution.

“It’s great to be able to have this as a resource available to us,” said Veronica, a mother of two school-aged children whose husband is stationed here in Kitsap County. “I wish that more families could be take part in this, that would be amazing. But I’m grateful it’s available to our family.”

And having the event held at a familiar community site — American Legion Post 149 on Kitsap Way — was “a perfect fit,” said Steve Templeton, the post’s First Vice Commander.

“Typically, we like to focus most of our events for veterans and their families,” said Templeton. “But a lot of times we step outside of that and we do things strictly for the community. So this was perfect for us.”

Finally, when the time came to give out the available supplies, many local military members were happy to take time during the day to help get into the hands of students who need them.

Petty officer, first class Oliver Brown headed up the search for volunteers at his base, inspired by his own experience as a child in a financially-strapped family.

Brown said the best part of the day for him was seeing the overjoyed looks on childrens’ faces as they moved from table-to-table, excitedly picking up their supplies.

“It fills my heart because growing up, I was the same way,” said Brown. “I wasn’t very fortunate to have everything I needed, so when I see the opportunity to make kids smile in this way, we’re giving back to the community, we’re helping with their education, this is one less thing for the parents to worry about.”

Mark Krulish is a reporter for Kitsap News Group. Contact him at mkrulish@soundpublishing.com.