Football players volunteer for Stuff the Bus

Ryan Hannah hands off equipment during the Stuff the Bus campaign at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church Saturday.

Dan Colton, River Valley Media Group

As families think about the start of a new school year, there can be a mix of emotions from excitement and happiness to apprehension and a bit of sadness, as summer winds down.

For some families, however, there may also be some stress, as they try and figure out how to purchase school supplies if finances are tight. That’s where the Stuff the Bus program, established by the Vernon County Health Department seven years ago, steps in to offer a helping hand. The program fills backpacks with school supplies and distributes them to eligible students whose parents have registered for the help.

In 2016, 742 backpacks were distributed, which was up by 39 from 2015.

“Last year we had 80 walk-ins,” said Nancy Walters, a public health nurse with the Health Department who had the idea for the program. “We build on that group of backpacks in order to be prepared for walk-ins.”

“The first year we had 66 kids and we were patting ourselves on the back,” Walters said. “We considered it a success.”

In 2011, which was the second year of the program, the goal was to distribute 132 backpacks to Vernon County schoolchildren. The goal was exceeded and grew to 266.

“We now have an operating budget of around $20,000, which is nice,” Walters said.

Over the years numerous partners have worked with the Health Department to ensure students and their families have what they need to start the school year on the right foot. Partners include Viroqua Walmart, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Vernon County Salvation Army, James B. Bigley Foundation, Vernon County Lions clubs, Vernon Communications Cooperative, Viroqua Area Rotary Club, Organic Valley, Couleecap, Westby and Peoples State Bank among other individuals, organizations and businesses.

Walters said about 2,000 students in Vernon County are eligible to receive Stuff the Bus supplies.

Viroqua Walmart hosted the Stuff the Bus event in its parking lot Saturday, which gave the public an opportunity to buy a brat to support the program and drop off school supplies.

Viroqua High School football players volunteered Saturday to haul donations from the bus into Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.

Tom Lohr, junior varsity coach, said his players are being taught the importance of community service and are gaining leadership skills while doing it.

About seven boys arrived to help move boxes into the church’s basement.

When they were finished, Lohr called them over to speak with the Broadcaster. The players gathered into a huddle.

Incoming sophomore Tyler Hannah, son of head coach Bill Hannah, said he wanted to support the community that roots for his team.

“It’s what we can do to give back to them,” Hannah said.

Walters said the Health Department is a drop-off location for donations of money and school supplies all year long. “It’s the only way to keep on top of it because of prices.”

School supplies are stored at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Viroqua.

“The whole congregation is devoted to Stuff the Bus,” Walters said. “The space is very nice. We are lucky.”

The church is also where volunteers will fill backpacks Aug. 10 and 11.

Backpacks will be distributed at locations in Viroqua, Ontario, Hillsboro and La Farge. Although parents were encouraged to register to receive a backpack with school supplies by 4:30 p.m. Aug. 9, they can still call the Health Department at 608-637-5251. Parents may still have to purchase some supplies from their child’s school list.

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