United Way’s Stuff the Bus campaign supports area teachers’ back-to-school prep

What makes a good teacher?

A quick Google search reveals millions of answers from millions of perspectives. 

But what if you ask United Way of Gratiot & Isabella Counties’ research development manager, Tiffany Eisenberger?

“I think a lot goes into being a good teacher,” she says. “They make so much difference in a student's life. A good teacher allows for students to grow and prosper and turn into people that we want to see in society.”

And this is just one of the many, many reasons Eisenberger and the rest of the staff at United Way of Gratiot & Isabella Counties work so hard for their annual Stuff the Bus campaign.

Each year, the organization raises thousands of dollars through corporate partners, clubs, businesses, and individuals in order to help area elementary school teachers in the area get much-needed classroom supplies.

“I think our primary goal is to allow for teachers to get those supplies in the hands of students that need it,” explains Eisenberger. “And we understand that during this time it is difficult. Teachers are expected to spend a lot of money out-of-pocket, and this is just a way for us to relieve that burden that sometimes they are expected to spend.”
Photo courtesy of United Way of Gratiot & Isabella Counties.The Stuff the Bus campaign started in 2001. Eisenberger says that first year was a one-day school supply drive where people donated enough content to fill 80 to 100 backpacks. Over the years, the program has evolved.

“Now, it's more of a model where we secure sponsorships and donations from the community, and that goes towards a Visa gift card,” Eisenberger says. “Teachers can pick what they need because every classroom is different, and they all need different things depending on what they receive from their students and the school.”

Eisenberger says the campaign usually begins in May.

“We try to get it going before school gets out so we can get a hold of administrators and get their count numbers for classrooms for the upcoming year,” Eisenberger explains. “And then over the summer as the campaign starts to kick off, we use a lot of social media and we do a mailer.”

Eisenberger says community members and organizations always respond.

“Year after year, we're blown away by the support that we get from our communities. They really, truly love this initiative. They step up,” she says. “Year after year, businesses, service groups, clubs, groups of employees at different workplaces, and individuals are sending funds in to help these teachers and help us reach our goal.”

Photo courtesy of United Way of Gratiot & Isabella Counties.As August gets underway, Visa gift cards are purchased and readied for presentation to the teachers. Eisenberger notes a special partnership with Isabella County Community Credit Union at this point in the campaign.

“We partnered with Isabella Community Credit Union and they waived the activation fee for us,” she says of the gift cards themselves. “That's really allowed us to go to the Visa gift card rather than a specific business gift card. What we've heard from the feedback is that this model has been really helpful for them [teachers] because you can find a deal that allows for them to purchase more and get more bang for their buck.”

This year, Eisenberger says United Way will be delivering Visa gift cards to over 500 elementary classrooms throughout Isabella and Gratiot counties. Teachers will be presented the cards in the next two weeks, along with a goody bag for their classrooms that includes basic supplies such as scissors or crayons.

But businesses and individuals alike still have time to get involved. 

“We haven't secured all the sponsorships we need, but we're working super hard and every day we're getting more,” she says. “We have people that give in all ranges of donations to this initiative, so it's available for anyone that's interested in giving.”

Eisenberger says donors can request their donation go to a specific school or even a specific teacher.

“The community support and generosity through Stuff the Bus makes our educators feel valued, supported, and empowered,” says Katie Rinke, principal of Mt. Pleasant’s Fancher Elementary School. 

“This provides extra funds so our teachers are able to purchase supplies their students or classroom may need throughout the year, even something as simple as Kleenex to disinfectant wipes,” says Rinke. “Those items start to add up quickly over the school year. The fact that our teachers don't have to worry about where the funds will come from to make those purchases is so nice.” 
“United Way is always seeking creative ways to best support the field of education,” she adds.  “And to remind our teachers and school staff that they matter and the work they do impacts our communities for many years to come.” 

Photo courtesy of United Way of Gratiot & Isabella Counties.While this is only Eisenberger’s second year working with United Way, she has already seen the impact the Stuff the Bus initiative has made.

“It's just so uplifting and inspiring,” she says. “And it just keeps us going and keeps us wanting to do it year after year. As it grows, the support for the program grows with it, and it really feels like this is what we're supposed to be doing.”

“When we give back to these teachers, it allows for them to pour back into their students,” Eisenberger concludes. “We truly value the time and commitment and the work that the teachers in our community are doing and just want to make sure that they feel valued in that way. The community supports them, and the United Way supports them, and we're behind all this.”

To learn more about United Way of Gratiot and Isabella Counties’ Stuff the Bus campaign or to make a donation, visit their website, www.uwgic.org.
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Read more articles by Sarah R. Adams-Slominski.

Sarah R. Adams-Slominski is an award-winning multimedia producer and writer with over 20 years of experience. She has also designed and taught multimedia and communication courses for university students, as well as media relations and marketing seminars for clients she coaches across the United States. In 2020, she began work on a doctorate and is now concentrating on dissertation research in educational technology and new literacies while working as a freelance writer, editor, and adjunct college instructor. When she has some downtime, Sarah loves reading, cooking, and swimming—as well as hanging out with friends, family, and her fiancé at home with two giant cats.