United Way of Fort Smith Area’s 14th annual Fill the Bus drive will be July 27-28.

Events will be held from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, July 27, and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, July 28.

United Way will partner with Walmart stores, including the ones in Alma and Van Buren, to collect necessary school supplies for school districts to help children be ready and equipped for the academic year.

“The power of paying it forward is really seen in motion at Fill the Bus,” said Eddie Lee Herndon, president of United Way of Fort Smith Area.

The event, sponsored by Walmart, Channel 5 in Fort Smith, Honda and all area Shelter Insurance agents is completely run by volunteers. United Way usually averages 600-700 volunteers but is hoping for at least 800 to help fill buses parked outside several Walmart stores in the coverage area to help better prepare students for the upcoming school year with needed supplies.

“Last year we collected 47,000 packages of school supplies; so, for example, a package of 100 pencils is counted as one package. Nine erasers in a pack count as one,” Herndon said. “Close to 150,000 packages of school supplies have been collected in the last three years.”

School supplies needed include three-ring binders, antibacterial wipes, art supplies, backpacks, ink pens, colored pencils, crayons, erasers, folders, glue, markers, notebooks, notebook paper, pencil boxes, pencils, rulers, scissors and tissues.

“We’re very blessed to have such a strong community to not only volunteer, but also to buy a few supplies to donate,” he said. “And, what is amazing is, everybody doing a little bit adds up to an enormous impact that we can make on our children and our teachers.”

Herndon estimated that teachers spend between $1,000 to $1,500 out of their own pockets to fund their classrooms. But this isn’t the only reason Fill the Bus is important, he said; it also gives students a level playing field — giving them all the supplies they need to get off to a good start.

“From an emotional standpoint, it’s difficult when one child has something and another child doesn’t,” Herndon said. “That creates a potential barrier inside the classroom. By having a really strong Fill the Bus program, we’re able to take some of the financial stress off the teachers, from having to take resources away from their families to provide for their students.”

But again, volunteers are necessary to the success of Fill the Bus, Herndon said. Volunteering is broken up into two-hour work increments, and people may choose their own time slot to work.

Visit UnitedWayFortSmith.org or call United Way of Fort Smith Area’s office at (479) 782-1311. All locations will be made available, and volunteers can choose what works best for them. Herndon said groups like baseball teams, Future Farmers of America, work colleagues or church groups often pick a location and take a couple shifts.

In addition to Crawford County, volunteers are needed in Logan, Franklin, Sebastian and Scott counties in Arkansas and Leflore and Sequoyah counties in Oklahoma.