By Katie Fallon

As the school year begins Monday for public school students in Fulton County, some youngsters will inevitably skip the momentous occasion for fear of ridicule from their peers.

That teasing, though, is not because of the clothes the students wear or the way they look, but because many needy students in Sandy Springs and Dunwoody cannot afford to purchase the list of supplies schools ask their pupils to bring on the first day of school. Those lists often include requests for dozens of pencils, markers, crayons, scissors, notebook paper, binders, Kleenex and disinfectant wipes.

But in the week before school started, one local charitable organization helped to alleviate the financial strain that the first day of school can place on some families.

The Community Action Center (CAC), located in north Sandy Springs on Hightower Trail, is a nonprofit organization that targets needy families in Sandy Springs and Dunwoody. The CAC brings together monetary and in-kind donations to assist people in need, prevent homelessness and promote self-sufficiency.

The center’s director Tamara Carrera said the inspiration for the drive came about eight years ago when, on the first day of school, she arrived at the center to find several children of middle-school age in the waiting area of the tiny facility.

She thought that was odd because the children should have been in school. When she asked the children why they were not in class she said she was surprised with the answer she eventually received.

That answer came when one boy finally followed her back to her office. He told Carrera that they were not at school because they could not afford their school’s list of supplies and did not want to be made fun of if they showed up empty-handed on their first day of school.

From then on, Carrera said the CAC has used the schools to find out who needs a little extra help. In addition, many of the CAC’s existing clients also receive the fruits of the drive.

“We work with the schools and they refer a lot of people,” she said.

Indeed, the lobby of the CAC was crowded with parents on Aug. 6, the first day of the school supply distribution. Many had little ones in tow and all received a boy or girl-themed backpack full of supplies for their school-ages children. What’s more is the CAC volunteers had lists from every local school to make sure the recipients received exactly what they needed.

The volunteers, many of whom are high school students themselves, walked briskly back and forth from aisle to aisle grabbing from bins overflowing with pencils, boxes of crayons, bottles of glue, and the ubiquitous black and white composition notebook.

“They get a backpack with everything,” Carrera explained. “We actually take their school list and give them specifically what they need.”

While the school supply distribution is held only once a year, the director said parents can come back to the CAC if their children run out of supplies during the school year. This year, the drive is expected to help upwards of 500 local students. Last year, the CAC filled backpacks for approximately 300 students.

“It’s growing like crazy because the more teachers know about us, the more they refer,” Carrera said.

At High Point Elementary School, for example, teachers referred 150 students. In an experiment they hope to continue, the CAC filled the orders and delivered them to the school. Carrera said she hopes that will continue.

“Eventually, we want to work with all the schools the same way,” she said. “They will qualify the students, give us the list and we’ll fill out everything and send it back to them.”

Several local civic organizations also helped the CAC with the money or items it needed for the distribution of school supplies. The Kiwanis Club of Sandy Springs, for instance, brought an entire shopping cart worth of supplies to the center on Aug. 3.

Club secretary Milton Gorman said the club’s efforts, led by project chairman Denise Hunt, garnered between $350 and $400 worth of school supplies. Gorman said club members donated both money and school supplies for the drive.

Carrera said that during the first week of school, the CAC will be staffed with extra volunteers to deal with the increased need for supplies.