By Debbie Adams
Roanoke County Public Schools (RCPS) collected an estimated $29,648 in school supplies for students in need during the 2021 Load the Bus Campaign—an annual event for over two decades. This far exceeded this year’s goal of $25,000. The impetus for “Load the Bus for Kids” is to provide school supplies for students who might not be able to afford the tools they need to be successful in school.
For the past few years, Load the Bus has been held during Virginia’s tax-free weekend—this year from August 6-8.
Chuck Lionberger, director of Community Relations for RCPS, presented a report to the School Board on the most recent Load the Bus event at the board meeting on September 23 and recognized the many partners who made the drive such a success. Certificates of appreciation were presented to several individuals.
Lionberger informed the board that the fundraising event is in its 20th year; he has spearheaded the project since the beginning when the project was limited to Roanoke County Schools. The totals for the first few years when the campaign was known as “Pack the Bus” and sponsored by Q-99 Radio, are not documented, but from 2007 to 2013 between $4,000 and $5,000 in supplies were collected each year.
The total jumped to about $6,500 when the event was rebranded as Load the Bus in 2014; increased to $11,500 in 2015; $18,700 in 2016; $19,964 in 2017; and around $23,000 in 2018 and 2019. Unfortunately, the pandemic hurt the campaign significantly in 2020, with just $9,774 in supplies donated.
Lionberger noted that through the years neighboring school systems have joined the campaign and now include Roanoke City, Salem City, and Craig County. The school districts partner with the Walmart Corporation for Load the Bus with supplies collected at the Bonsack, Salem, Clearbrook, and Valley View Walmart locations.
He emphasized that Walmart is “determined to make the program bigger and better each year.” The company promotes the event heavily in the stores and encourages customers to donate generously.
The back-to-school shopping lists distributed to customers entering the stores included: backpacks, glue sticks, notebooks, 3-ring binders, crayons, colored pencils, notebook paper (college and wide-ruled), pens, pencils, highlighters, rulers, folders, scissors, and construction paper. They also requested classroom items like tissues, hand sanitizer, printer paper, dry erase markers and more.
Shoppers were invited to bring their donations to the school bus parked in front of each Walmart during announced hours, but they were also collected at the registers and in bins throughout the stores during regular business hours.
Lionberger recognized representatives from the area Walmart stores at the School Board meeting on September 23, including Store Manager Annette Verplanken from the Bonsack Walmart as well as those from Salem, Clearbrook, and Valley View. He also recognized several members of the transportation department, including Donna Inserra, Melissa Welch, Chris Hogan, and Barry Dudley.
Lionberger says there is “a big bar to cross” in next year’s Load the Bus Campaign.
Volunteers, including School Superintendent Dr. Ken Nicely and School Board Chair Jason Moretz, plus teachers and staff from all the participating localities, Central Office staff, bus drivers and aides, and student organizations (bands and cheerleaders) helped to collect the supplies and load them on the bus in hot and humid weather, where they were sorted by categories.
The real work begins on the Monday after the Load the Bus event, with “Unload the Bus,” dividing the thousands of items donated between the four participating school systems and among all their schools.
Donations at the Bonsack, Clearbrook, and Valley View Walmarts are shared between Roanoke County and Roanoke City. The Salem Walmart splits their donations between Roanoke County, Salem City, and Craig County.
Lionberger and his team set what they considered to be a modest goal of $25,000 worth of supplies for 2021 and were amazed at the community’s response.
By Sunday evening when the drive came to a close, boxes were “over-stacked and overflowing” with supplies.
In addition to school supplies, monetary donations were also accepted.
Lionberger credits the contributions made by the personnel at the Walmart stores, the RCPS warehouse staff, and a multitude of volunteers for the efficiency and success of the program over such a long period of time.
Members of the School Board commended Lionberger—a man “who wears many hats”—and the many volunteers who made this year’s Load the Bus so successful once again.
Each year, Lionberger emphasizes that “every item and every cent of donations” goes to help students in need.