Mary Ellen Hodge was launching a new special education program and classroom at Northridge Elementary last summer, and she had something unusual on her back-to-school shopping list.

She wanted a pop-up tent, a small one right at home on any campground, for her room. There was no money in the school budget for the item, and she wasn't sure there was enough in her own checkbook for it, either.

“Things are expensive, and I just got tired of hearing no, no, no, no, no,” Hodge said. “What you end up doing is get what you can from the district, and then you end up buying other stuff yourself — or sell cinnamon rolls like I do.”

She means that quite literally. When visiting the capitol in Topeka during the most recent legislative session, she sold pans of cinnamon rolls to legislators to raise money for classroom supplies. She also sold rolls at a convention for educators in Hesston. Just this week she spent $80 in one trip to a retailer to try and outfit her classroom for the upcoming school year. 

Last year Hodge called the United Way, which for the past two years has done a different kind of school supply drive. They have been asking teachers in the area for their back-to-school wish lists. 

“I love it. Each classroom is different. I teach special ed, which has different needs. If you do a drive for notebooks and pencils and that kind of thing, my kids do not necessarily use that stuff,” Hodge said. 

They fulfilled the request, the result of the annual Fill the Bus school supply drive by Harvey County United Way and Wal-Mart. This year Carter's, Faith and Life Book Store, the Heart-to-Heart Child Advocacy Center, Citizen's Bank in Wal-Mart and Kansas Christian Home are joining in as collection centers. In addition, businesses are able to adopt classrooms and help with wish lists, which happened in Hodge's case. 

Hodge said it had the impact she expected — helping with student behavior in a classroom filled with students diagnosed with ADHD.

“It made a huge difference,” Hodge said. “I have kids who struggle to get up in the morning or they take medication that causes them to be tired. I will not get anything out of them if they are like that. If they can get a nap or sit with a book and regroup, I am fine with that. They just need it.”

This year the Fill the Bus school supply drive will be from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug. 5 at Wal Mart, 1700 S. Kansas Ave.

Wal-Mart and the United Way are again asking teachers for their wish lists — knowing that the program has grown quickly in just two years. The first year a few dozen teachers' lists were filled, all within the Newton school district as the program was piloted.

Last year, more than 100 lists were filled — and teachers from every school district in Harvey County were included.

Emails went out to teachers this week asking for the wish lists, and Hodge already knows what she will be asking for — small games to help teach social skills and communication. In less than 24 hours the United Way had received nearly 50 replies with wish lists for the 2017 effort.