Jonathan Solis, 3, holds his new school supplies that he...

Jonathan Solis, 3, holds his new school supplies that he received from Pronto in Bay Shore, Wednesday. (Sept. 1, 2010) Credit: Ed Betz

Nonprofit groups serving Long Island's neediest families say donations of backpacks, notebooks and other essentials to annual school supply drives are dwindling in the face of skyrocketing demand.

"This is probably the worst year we've ever seen," said Ken Mangan, founder of Every Child's Dream in Sayville.

Mangan's group usually gives out about 1,000 backpacks with supplies a year. But this year, it struggled to reach 600, he said.

"This is definitely driven by people concerned by the economy, by their jobs," he said. "The $100 checks have turned into $25 checks, if anything."

The Long Island Coalition for the Homeless stopped taking new requests for school supplies from families three weeks ago. Last year, the coalition gave out 2,000 backpacks filled with school supplies. This year, with most schools opening next week, it only has 500. "The requests have grown every year, and this is a year we are not able to accommodate all the requests we've received," said executive director Greta Guarton.

While statistics show Long Island has fared slightly better than the nation in terms of unemployment, the region still has suffered under the economy's sour trajectory.

A record number of Long Islanders received food stamps in March, according to state figures, and the number of welfare recipients in the region this year has risen to levels not seen since 1999. The number of homeless families locally has risen by double-digit percentage points over last year.

John Theissen of the John Theissen Children's Foundation in Wantagh said he typically tries to find sponsors to buy clothing and supplies for 200 children, but so far only about 100 children have been sponsored. The foundation usually helps an additional 200 children with supplies; to do that this year, it will have to use its credit card. "In the past, I would take on more and more kids, and I haven't been able to do that this year," he said.

Many schools circulate detailed lists of supplies that students will need during the school year. Students are requested to bring the supplies to school early in the year, sometimes on the first day.

Some school districts address the issue of supplies for needier students by suggesting that parents send in a few extra.

UJA-Federation of New York, which distributed 2,522 backpacks on Long Island this year, said it managed to keep pace with increased demand by working on its drive year-round.

Jon Stepanian, of Long Island Food Not Bombs, which is in the middle of its school supply drive, said his group has managed to collect about the same amount of supplies as last year, but increased demand means that won't be enough. "I would say already we've given out half of what we gave out total last year, and this has only been the first two days," Stepanian said.

At Pronto of Long Island in Bay Shore, organizers began giving out school supplies in plastic bags because they ran out of backpacks the first day of distribution, although a company did donate boxes of drawstring bags on Tuesday night.

Ruth Reyes' three children received school supplies from Pronto Wednesday for the coming year in the Brentwood school district. Reyes, 32, a single mother, seemed visibly relieved.

"It's not that it's expensive, but with three children and maintaining a house, it's hard," she said through a translator.

The struggle to provide this year has distressed Mangan. "It breaks my heart," he said. "It's nice when you can get them the supplies. But when you can't get them the supplies, it really hurts."

If you want to donate school supplies:

Long Island Coalition for the Homeless

Every Child’s Dream

Pronto of Long Island

Long Island Food Not Bombs

John Theissen Children’s Foundation

Items requested include: Backpacks, notebooks, pens, pencils, erasers, glue, rulers, scissors, protractors and calculators.

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