Because of COVID-19 safety concerns, this year’s APPLES Back to School Fair will be held outdoors on July 25.

As with everything else, the COVID-19 pandemic has played havoc with this year’s Johnson County APPLES Coalition event and organizers say time is running out to meet vital needs.

“The need in Johnson County has always been great,” said Marty Peters, one of the annual event’s organizers. “We’re thinking though that, because so many parents have lost jobs or been furloughed because of COVID-19, this year the need is going to be even greater, which is why we want to do everything we can to ensure we’re able to provide for all students in need.”

The coalition, which started more than a decade ago, consists of a joint effort by several county civic and charitable organizations including American Legion Auxiliary, East Cleburne Community Center, Cleburne Lions Club, Cleburne ISD, Operation Blessing and others.

“It started about 12 years ago because the various groups involved realized that, by working together, we could eliminate duplication of services because many of these groups were already doing school supply projects,” Peters said. “By working together we also realize stronger buying power and other efficiencies of working as a team.”

The program provides a free backpack and basic school supplies to pre-kindergarten to twelfth grade Cleburne, Keene, Godley and Rio Vista ISD students. 

“Starting school with the necessary supplies not only builds the self esteem of the children but also helps relieve the financial burden on the teachers and schools,” according to the Johnson County Apples Coalition brochure.

The challenge this year is that donations have been slow coming in and the event is entirely funded by private and in-kind donations, organizers said. 

“The other thing is that time is off the essence this year,” Peters said. “Cleburne is starting back on Aug. 3 and I think some of the other districts are starting earlier than usual too. Add that to the greater need this year because of COVID-19 and we’re kind of in a big need for donations and volunteers.”

The goal is to serve 800 students while realizing that more may be in need this year and, depending on donations, hoping to meet the needs of as many of those students as possible, Peters said.

“The Apples program is unique in that there is no overhead because we use volunteers and 100 percent of the donations go toward school supplies,” Peters said. “We’re also only for Johnson County so all of this benefits our kids locally. 

“Also, with the new tax laws, up to $300 is deductible even if you don’t itemize.”

A donation of $17.50 covers the cost of a backpack and basic school supplies for one student, $35 covers two and so on, Peters said.

New approach

“This year we’re doing things a little different for distribution of the supplies,” Peters said. “In previous years we required parents to fill out a pre-application form. But, because of COVID-19, they will instead register the day of the event. We’ll just need the parent or guardian’s identification and birth certificates for the children. “

This year’s Back to School Fair begins at 9 a.m. July 25 in the parking lot of Wheat Middle School, 810 N. Colonial Drive. Participants will enter from Harlin Drive and exit on Colonial Drive. The event is also earlier than usual to meet earlier school opening schedules.

“Whereas in the past we held the event inside with students and parents going to different tables this year will be outside and all done by car,” Peters said. “Participants will drive up for registration then drive to one of four tents we’ll have set up depending on their grade level where volunteers will hand out the school supplies.”

Other services offered in previous years will also be delivered differently this year.

“In the past we had a doctor on site to offer free eye exams,” Cleburne Lions Board member Dora Vasquez said. “For safety reasons, we felt uncomfortable going that route this year. Instead we’re going to give out vouchers that the students can use for the free exams. We’ll be there with the Plexiglas and wearing masks to answer any questions anyone may have and we think that will work well to help everyone out and keep everybody safe.”

Donations may be mailed to Johnson County Apple Coalition 1005 N. Main St., Cleburne, TX 76033 or by calling 817-558-4848. All interested in volunteering to help out are encouraged to call the same number for details. 

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