GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A labor of love for a West Michigan nonprofit is entering its third year, but after one last project WEcareGR is set to press pause.
The volunteer group has launched its third annual school supply drive, this time collecting supplies for the students and teachers at Burton Elementary School in Grand Rapids Public Schools. Every year, WEcareGR partners with a different school that primarily serves students from low-income households. This year, it is called “Project Love A Student.” Organizers put together Amazon wish lists for teachers and administrators to get exactly what they need to keep their classrooms stocked.
“Just the way our economy is right now, these households and the school have a tighter budget probably more than ever. And I know the community can help fill some of that gap to help the students have the best school year ever. That’s my goal: to give them all that school magic that every kid deserves,” WEcareGR founder Audrey Wendt told News 8.
Wendt, who works as a nurse in the Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital emergency room, launched the group during the thick of the pandemic in 2020. The idea popped into her mind when her son was set to go back to school. The teacher requested extra supplies because students could no longer share during the pandemic. It wasn’t a problem for her family but her mind turned to the parents who couldn’t spare that extra money.
“That night I could not sleep,” Wendt told News 8 in 2020. “What do they do for these extra supplies? My son’s wish list was done and taken care of but if a teacher or a school needs fun things right now, what do they do?”
“Project Love A Student” was born, collecting more followers and tons of supplies. After a few weeks, WEcareGR was able to donate about $17,000 worth of school supplies to Cesar E. Chavez Elementary School on Grand Rapids’ southwest side.
The pandemic has waned but the need hasn’t.
“The (Burton Elementary) staff told me they have zero playground toys. That boggles my mind,” Wendt said. “I think of my own children, they love recess. They love playing soccer. My son always talks about playing soccer and to think that kids at Burton Elementary can’t play soccer on their recess because they don’t have soccer balls. I’m like, ‘No, we can do something about that.’”
This year’s collection will work the same as in years past. WEcareGR has cultivated the Amazon wish lists for Burton’s staff and donors can access them through the group’s Facebook page. However, instead of the supplies taking over Wendt’s house, a volunteer has stepped up to take the packages.
“Brace Homes contacted me, and they said, ‘Hey, we’ve seen the pictures of all the boxes in your living room and garage. We think we can help you with that,’” Wendt said.
Over the last two years, WEcareGR has led several other projects, including a pen pal project for local seniors and holiday gift programs for patients at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. But “Project Love A Student” will be the last one for a while.
Wendt, who has already cut back to working one day a week at the hospital, is pregnant with her fourth child. As much as she loves the volunteer work, she believes she needs to take some time and focus on her family.
“Last year, we had that really high influx of (COVID-19 cases), that giant wave there in like August to December, and we lost one of our family members to COVID. And it made me realize how important family is,” Wendt said.
She dwelt on a quote attributed to Mother Teresa: “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”
“And I thought, ‘Gosh, that is true.’ And so I want to work at home, I want to work with my kids. I want to be the one teaching them about kindness and volunteering and all of that. That’s why I think it’d be good for me to step back,” Wendt said. “I don’t want to get burned out, either. I want to remain passionate about my community. But I know if I stretch myself too thin, even with nursing and stuff, you learn your limits. If I stretch myself too thin, I’m going to be no good for anybody.”
Still, Wendt says she has no intentions of walking away from WEcareGR for good.
“I think for at least a year until I get things figured out, unless God speaks to me and I find the energy and the time,” Wendt said.
“Project Love A Student” runs through Aug. 3. Wendt expects the supplies to be delivered sometime in mid-August.