As the 2019-20 school year rapidly approaches, students and teachers alike may be getting a little anxious.

To ease some of that stress — as well as the burden on the local families — the annual "Fill the Bus" supply drive, taking place from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the Newton Walmart (1701 S. Kansas Road), seeks to provide both parties with some of the essentials as class returns to session.

Born out of a corporate initiative to support the community and a growing awareness of how often teachers were dedicating personal resources to their classrooms, the Harvey County United Way and Walmart partnered half a decade ago to provide some assistance to local educators and students.

Through the "Fill the Bus" initiative and Harvey County United Way's Classroom Wish List project — the latter a unique aspect among Kansas agencies — supply requests are received from teachers in school districts throughout the county. Those lists are then distributed to Walmart shoppers on the day of the event, so that they can pick up any items they feel compelled to donate and "Fill the Bus" as they leave the store.

"It's a fun project. It's a win-win. The donors at Walmart that day, they love to pick up the packages of markers, and it truly is a great example of how everybody making a small contribution adds up," said Tina Payne, Harvey County United Way executive director.

Originally, the initiative was started as a pilot program with 51 teachers in Newton USD 373, but it quickly grew to encompass all school districts in Harvey County — including Burrton, Halstead, Hesston and Sedgwick, as well as St. Mary Catholic School in Newton. Nearly 200 teachers now submit wish lists each year, asking for classroom staples like dry-erase markers, sharpies, Post-It notes, office paper, etc.

More than $6,000 in donations have been collected the last two years, according to Payne, with the average wish list bag for teachers usually valued at $30 to $50. While that individual number may seem low, the impact of those donations cannot be overstated.

"Watching the teachers come in and pick up their bags from Tina's office ... they're like a kid on Christmas morning," said Heather Koehn, a third-grade teacher at Slate Creek Elementary.

Koehn has helped with the "Fill the Bus" initiative since its inception, and was one of the teachers who helped open Payne's eyes to the level of personal expenses educators were investing in their classrooms.

Previously, Koehn said she has spent her own money on shoes, hair supplies, extra backpacks and more for the use of students in her classroom — which goes to show just how much of an impact the "Fill the Bus" event can have.

Yes, the money helps, but Payne said the initiative is truly about supporting and valuing local teachers. The "Fill the Bus" event brings in about one-third of the total donations that go into classrooms, with the Classroom Wish List Project also securing funding through private and business donors, but Koehn said the gesture itself truly stands out.

"Some of the churches would pick a building to bless or maybe a grade level even, but this is like the community wrapping all of the Harvey County schools in a great big hug," Koehn said.

"Truly every donation counts — every box of Kleenex, every package of markers. When someone donates that they think, 'oh, it's not much.' It is," Payne said, "because I have heard now that we are one of the few that actually fills the bus. We are one of the few communities that is able to do that, so that is thanks to the teachers who show up on that day to volunteer, that's thanks to the donors who contribute. We truly are rare and unique in the generosity and the support from our community."

For more information on the event or how else you can contribute, contact Payne at 316-283-7101 or harveyunitedway@gmail.com.