By Lt. Col. Carolyn Abell Smith, USA (Ret), chaplain, Kingdom of the Sun Chapter
When members of the Kingdom of the Sun (Fla.) Chapter learned in 2001 of poverty among Marion County schoolchildren that prevented many from purchasing needed school supplies, they quickly took action. Then-chapter President Col. Lamar Hunt, USA (Ret), spearheaded with Suzanne McGuire, of the Marion County School System, the “Stuff the Bus” program to raise funds to purchase and donate the needed items.
“It has always been a veterans’ initiative,” said Col. Craig Ham, USA (Ret), chapter 1st vice president, who assumed leadership of the project in 2016. Today, the name Stuff the Bus is registered to the Marion County Veterans Council by the State of Florida.
Kingdom of the Sun Chapter members and other veterans participate in fundraising and stuffing backpacks for schoolchildren.
“We try to go to all the Walmart stores in the area during the summer and spend a day asking customers arriving at the door to take one of the pre-printed ‘needs lists’ with them and purchase items in the store,” said Ham.
The old 2007 Bluebird bus with the Stuff the Bus logo sits in front of the store, where shopping carts are filled with donations and then “stuffed” into the bus. They are then taken to a storage facility, offloaded, and sorted into bins of like items.
Periodically, chapter volunteers, along with members of several other veterans’ organizations, Junior ROTC units, civic clubs, Boy Scouts troops, and Children of the American Revolution members, participate in stuffing the backpacks, forming an assembly line for inserting items. The filled backpacks are then placed in a covered trailer and delivered directly to individual schools.
“We deliver them before school starts,” said Ham. “We want these kids to start the year on an equal footing with their classmates. Triple Crown Trailers of Ocala lends us the trailer twice a year to pick up backpack shipments and deliver the stuffed ones to the schools. I use monetary donations to order all of the backpacks from a local wholesale company, which lets us have them at cost. The price is about one fourth of what they would cost us in a store.”
Monetary donations come from several local businesses and individuals. Ham keeps a list of donors and ensures each receives a personal note of thanks.
On a hot Florida Saturday in front of a local Walmart, Lt. Col. Carol Walker, USAF (Ret), asks customers to take a Stuff the Bus shopping list with them to buy and donate supplies. A past president of the chapter, she enthusiastically declares: “I do this every year. It’s the best thing our chapter does for the community.”
This year, 2023 backpacks with a value of over $88,000 were provided for needy school children.
“Our next major project is raising funds for a newer, smaller bus,” said Ham. “It won’t require a commercial driver’s license, and we really don’t need all the space on the old Bluebird.”
Anyone wishing to donate to Stuff the Bus can do so via the Marion County Veterans Council Facebook page.