FLEMINGTON, NJ – When students return to school in Hunterdon next month, more than a thousand will benefit from the United Way Tools for Schools program.

Some will benefit in ways they might not have imagined.

Tools for Schools is a program that provides backpacks stuffed with essential school supplies collected and donated by hundreds volunteers. The program, which began in 2004, now saves families more than $30,000 a year in school supplies. The backpacks were distributed today from the United Way of Hunterdon Volunteer Center on Fulper Road.

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To help get the students off to a good start, many also received haircuts this morning – also provided by volunteers.

United Way Communications and Community Impact Director Caroline Scutt said that while many of those receiving the donations are already receiving United Way services, some may not qualify for other services that their families need.  They represent the “ALICE” population: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. Those are the households that earn more than the Federal Poverty Level, but less than the basic cost of living here.

The statistics may surprise those who think of Hunterdon as a wealthy county. In Flemington, United Way’s most recent data show that of the borough’s 1,805 households, 58 percent are either below the poverty level, or ALICE. That’s 1,046 households and their children.

In Raritan Township, 30 percent of its 8,140 households fit the statistic. That’s more than 2,440 families.

After all, Hunterdon is an expensive place to live. United Way reports that a family of four with two young children here must earn about $90,000 a year to be self-sufficient.

That’s why “There are no income qualifications” for the backpacks, Scutt said. “No one gets turned away.”

The Volunteer Center was bustling with activity today as parents and children collected their backpacks from the volunteers. But the distinction between them is blurred; Scutt said some of the recipients also work as volunteers here.

Often, families volunteer together, Scutt said, offering them “a different view of the community” where they live.

Rachel Eichem is the Director of Development for the Hunterdon United Way. She recalled providing backpacks to a single mom who, after peaking inside the canvas tote, broke down into almost uncontrollable tears.

Inside the backpacks were the scientific calculators that the mom’s young students needed. What Eichem couldn’t have known then was that the need for the calculators was so great, and the mom’s budget so strained, that she had told her children she wouldn’t be able to honor her promise that they would each begin the new school year with a brand-new clothing outfit.

So the calculators filled a need, and helped a mom fulfill a promise.

“It clearly defined why I do this work,” Eichem said.

In part because of ALICE, “Need comes in many different forms,” Scutt said, so today’s event is an opportunity to introduce some of the families to other services United Way can help provide.

For more information about United Way, its services, or how to volunteer, call 908-237-1689, visit them on Facebook or go to the United Way of Hunterdon website.