As of late last month, many of the more than 200,000 K-12 students in Hawaii headed back to the classroom to begin a new school year – and the rest of their peers will join them by the end of the month. For students who can’t afford school supplies, preparing for a productive year can be a daunting task. Luckily for those students, there is the Ready to Learn (R2L) program and its tireless volunteers such as Makiki resident Janice Casey. Each year, Casey and other volunteers work throughout July and August to collect, organize and distribute school supplies for students in need.
“I was just horrified that students in this state cannot afford basic school supplies,” says Casey. This year R2L will serve about 8,000 students, but Casey estimates that the number of students who need school supplies throughout the state could be as high as 75,000. “And it is just criminal that we have gotten ourselves into this situation where kids don’t have basic school supplies to attend school.”
R2L is run by Helping Hands Hawaii, a local nonprofit that connects individuals, families and organizations with needed resources. Other Helping Hands programs provide food and clothing to low-income families and address behavioral health. R2L was founded by U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye and his first wife, Maggie, in the late 1990s. Helping Hands took over the program several years ago. R2L partners with outside organizations, which collect supplies and cash donations. Central Pacific Bank, for example, is a corporate sponsor this year and currently is conducting a supply drive at its 34 branches. Once supplies are collected, R2L sorts and distributes them to various social service agencies to provide to students in need.
Casey began working with R2L in 1999 after retiring from a corporate career that included stints at hotels, airlines and consulting firms. “I am a firm believer in keeping busy,” she says. “You have to keep moving forward. And I think it is everybody’s responsibility to give back to the community.”
Along with a core group of volunteers that includes teachers and others involved in the education field, Casey is responsible for helping with the program’s logistics, sorting and packaging the supplies. “Our vision really is to see that many more kids have school supplies to go to school,” Casey says.
By the first week of August this year, R2L already has fulfilled all of the agencies’ requests and sent off the supplies – ensuring that as many keiki as possible are getting a good start to the year. For the next few weeks, the volunteers will collect and organize any remaining supplies for future use.
After R2L wraps up each year, Casey continues to volunteer with Helping Hands, assisting with administrative work at least once a week. In addition, Casey volunteers with Hawaii Foodbank and Hawaii Community Foundation.
“It’s about being grateful and appreciating what you have,” she says of her volunteer work. “I had a great career, and I have been very blessed. I just felt that it was time for me to give back.”