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“A mixture of joy and tears,” is how Gabe Garcia, principal of Duranes Elementary School in Albuquerque, described the experience of students receiving school supplies from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico’s (BCBSNM) Operation Back to School (OBTS) campaign. Speaking to KRQE News 13 in 2015 about the impact of OBTS, Garcia shared the words of one student, “If I know that there’s somebody bringing supplies for me, I know that somebody out there cares for me.”
Since 1990, OBTS has helped children and families who may not otherwise be able to acquire the long list of essential supplies needed for a productive school year. “These kids are so precious, but they need help,” Garcia told BCBSNM when Duranes Elementary School students received supplies again last year. “There are so many things that they can’t afford, and this is a major one right here. You guys have launched the year right for us.”
Understanding that having the appropriate materials is crucial to the education and development of young New Mexican minds, BCBSNM employees run OBTS annually to collect supplies for students at Title 1 schools throughout New Mexico. Schools designated as Title 1 serve a high proportion of students from low-income families.
Each year, employees secure donations during a month of OBTS fundraising at all three BCBSNM sites — the Government Programs building, the Service Center and Headquarters. Volunteers known as Pencil Points oversee fundraising efforts and serve as representatives for the campaign in their respective departments. To raise money for supplies, staff members organize a variety of initiatives, including silent auctions for covered garage parking spaces and a popup snack stand selling coffee and treats. Employees also prepare and sell food, such as barbeque sandwiches, nachos, tacos and enchiladas. Past successful fundraising endeavors included a pie-eating contest and an ice-bucket challenge in which employees donated funds to see obliging supervisors get ice dumped on them.
Once fundraising is complete, the Community Outreach team works with a selected vendor to purchase supplies, including spiral notebooks, loose-leaf paper, No. 2 pencils, glue, crayons, colored pencils and rounded-tip scissors. Employees, along with their families and friends, then gather for Sort Night at the Service Center warehouse to organize and prepare the materials for each school. For hours, volunteers count and sort items, lift and move boxes filled with heavy paper and notebooks, push dollies stacked with supplies, load provisions on large pallets and wrap them with plastic. On delivery days, even more arranging, parceling and hoisting takes place as volunteers strategically pack goods into BCBSNM’s Care Van®. Last August during Sort Night, more than 30 employees and their family members organized over 22,000 school supplies for 16 elementary schools in New Mexico.
Planning, collaborating, collecting and sorting — all of these actions and more lead up to delivery days when students across the state receive much-needed supplies. In August, volunteers visit each school, unloading the Care Van, distributing items to children and filling entire rooms with supplies. Sometimes Blue BearSM , BCBSNM’s health and wellness mascot, attends deliveries. Schools welcome the OBTS volunteers with handmade signs and school placards expressing gratitude, high-fives and many smiling faces. Students at Duranes Elementary School have even treated BCBSNM employees to original musical performances to show their appreciation. Children, teachers and school administrators team up to help carry boxes into the school, and kids line the halls, passing supplies from one student to the next to carry supplies into the building.
After nearly 20 years of participating in the OBTS campaign, BCBSNM community relations specialist Consuelo Bolagh-Cowder still gets excited when she talks about bringing supplies to elementary school students in need, especially when children, teachers and principals see for the first time how many items they’re receiving. During deliveries, Bolagh-Cowder explained, a teacher expecting a single package of supplies might ask volunteers to place the box on a small table. When they discover that OBTS is in fact hauling large pallets of supplies, their jaws drop. Just talking about the distributions gives Bolagh-Cowder the chills. Her enthusiasm is infectious and a genuine indicator of the passion behind the efforts of the employees who have directed OBTS for the last 27 years. OBTS thrives as a grassroots operation, powered solely by employee volunteers, or, as Bolagh-Cowder calls them, “the all-stars.”
Felicia Montaño, BCBSNM supervisor of subscriber services , has been involved with OBTS for seven years. With three children of her own, Montaño understands the expense of school supplies, and she wanted to help students in need with a group that could make a substantial impact. Serving as a Pencil Point for about four years, Montaño acts as a liaison for other Pencil Points, plans and organizes fundraising activities and recruits volunteers to help with the campaign. For Montaño, one of the most exciting aspects of the campaign is seeing employees collaborate with a tremendous sense of commitment and charity. Though employees are incredibly busy in their work and lives, they take the time to contribute to OBTS. “I really enjoy everybody coming together to accomplish something big for these children and for these schools,” Montaño said. “OBTS gives us an opportunity to give back and show who we are as humans capable of helping each other.”
Now celebrating the 27th anniversary of OBTS, employees raised an impressive $15,000 this spring. Thanks to their achievements, elementary students at 18 schools throughout New Mexico, including four schools in Albuquerque, will be receiving the items they need for a successful school year. “It’s important that we are involved in our communities,” Bolagh-Cowder said. “We want to make sure that we are covering our entire state.”
Over the last 27 years, 119 different schools have benefited from OBTS donations. In the previous five years alone, OBTS has raised over $60,000 dollars and given an estimated 100,000 plus school supplies. Employees donate annually up to $15,000, which purchases approximately 23,000 school supplies. And this year is no different. Over 5,000 children will be impacted by the donation in 2017. Sort Night takes place in August, and employees travel the state to deliver supplies during the first weeks of school.
With the magnitude of the campaign today, it’s hard to believe that OBTS began on a small scale 27 years ago. Bolagh-Cowder has seen the positive impact of BCBSNM employees continue to grow with an increased sense of compassion, enthusiasm and duty to serve the community. As Principal Garcia told KRQE News 13, “It really does take a village. It’s not just a saying. It takes a village of all of us to help raise responsible kids in New Mexico.”
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