Rockin’ into school

The past year has been a challenge for Autumn Combs and her 8-year-old daughter, Jersey.

Before school began last summer, Jersey was diagnosed with granulomatosis with polyangiitis, a rare disease in which blood vessels and other tissues become inflamed. The inflammation limits blood flow to important organs in the body, potentially leading to long-term damage.

“It never goes away, and it can hit her at any given time, any part of the body,” Autumn Combs said.

The disease causes a person to become swollen, and Jersey missed a lot of school last year because of that, her mother said. Jersey went from weekly visits to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis to every other week to now once a month.

The cost of hospital stays and medicine began to add up, and Autumn Combs wondered if she would be able to afford school supplies for Jersey and her other child, Jason, as the new school year approaches.

After giving it some thought, Autumn Combs decided to sign up for Jackson County United Way’s seventh annual Rock’n Ready school supply distribution event, conducted Saturday at Seymour High School.

More than 600 students from all over the county first received a supply list based on their grade. They then picked out a backpack at the first table before going around to others to get the supplies they need.

“I don’t like to take help unless we absolutely need it just because I know there are a lot of kids that need help,” Autumn Combs said. “I’m very thankful and very grateful for this because this will help tremendously.”

When Jersey and Jason head back to classes Aug. 10 at Margaret R. Brown Elementary School in Seymour, they will have all of the supplies they need to start the school year off on the right foot.

“She’s starting to get back to where she can do stuff, but it’s always going to be there with her no matter what,” Combs said of her daughter’s disease. “It’s just trying to keep it under control, trying to find that perfect medicine that helps control it. It’s a rare disease, and it’s very deadly. A lot of people usually don’t live to be 40 from it. It’s very hard. I just try to make the best of it with her and just try to give her fun times.”

Stories like that make Rock’n Ready worthwhile, said Tonja Couch, executive director of Jackson County United Way.

“That’s why we do this program,” she said. “We do it for families that are struggling. … We do this program because we know it’s affecting lives. We’re doing this program to change families’ lives. If two backpacks with basic school supplies can change Mom and help her feel supported, that’s what community is about.”

Most of the items were collected through the Stuff the Bus drive, which involved community volunteers manning both entrances at Wal-Mart in Seymour and collecting school supply donations from customers. Couch said that netted more than 11,000 items.

Valeo Lighting Systems and Kremers Urban Pharmaceuticals Inc., both in Seymour, also conductedworkplace campaigns in which employees donated supplies.

Financial contributions to the program allowed the United Way to buy backpacks, which are the most expensive back-to-school item, Couch said.

The goal was to serve 1,000 students, and Couch said more than 600 had registered, and they accepted walk-ins Saturday.

After filling their backpacks with such items as scissors, folders, rulers, pencils, markers, crayons, erasers, gluesticks, binders, notebooks and highlighters, students wrote their name on thank-you notes that will be shared with those who donated to the cause. Any leftover supplies will be evenly divided among Jackson County schools.

Couch said she likes how kids get to choose their own backpack and supplies.

“We can really personalize those things just as if they were standing in the aisle at a store picking out their school supplies,” she said. “They get to do that here. That’s empowering.”

Magdalisha Martinez, 11, a fifth-grader at Brown Elementary, was excited about her backpack that has pink, yellow, blue and black on it along with a shiny silver flower.

Her sisters, Ave Martinez, 9, Malku Martinez, 8, and Lucia Toins, 6, also chose that backpack.

“It was really good to get all of it in one day,” Magdalisha said of selecting her own supplies.

She said she is excited about starting school. Her favorite subject is math.

“I like solving the problems,” she said.

Her mother, Amy Toins, said she was grateful for the Rock’n Ready program. Besides the four girls, she has two other children who aren’t school-age and is expecting her seventh child.

“I probably wouldn’t have been able to get all of the stuff that they need (without the program),” she said. “It helps people that can’t afford it. It’s a huge help.”

Toins said her four girls had been anxiously waiting for Saturday to arrive.

“They’ve been waiting since I called,” she said with a smile. “It was like, ‘Are we going? When are we going?’”

Saturday’s event also required the help of many volunteers. Teachers and staff from local schools and United Way board members were among them, along with a Leadership Jackson County team that has organized a run/walk to raise money for next year’s school supply drive. That event is set for this coming Saturday.

Missy Woods and Bonita Dobbs were co-chairwomen of the event. Dobbs helped with registration Saturday, while Woods handed out supplies.

Woods said it was a lot of work but well worth it.

“One of the great things about this is community,” she said. “You look around and look at what we’re doing as a community. These are our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers, and we’re all coming together to meet a huge need in our community, and that is the need of our children.”

Woods said the volunteers didn’t get involved because someone told them to do it. They did it because they enjoyed it.

“This is a love, this is a passion, and it’s not work if you love what you’re doing,” she said, smiling. “We come together and we laugh and we give and we share, and the people that come through laugh and give and share. It’s not a handout. It’s a connection.”

If you go

What: Rock’n Ready Race 5K run/walk and 10K run

When: Saturday (registration from 7 to 7:45 a.m.; race at 8 a.m.)

Where: Starts and finishes at Seymour High School

Who: Presented by the 2015 Leadership Jackson County Social Concerns Team

Why: To help raise awareness and support the Stuff the Bus and Rock’n Ready programs by ensuring there are startup funds for 2016’s school supply drive and distribution event

Cost: $25

Register: Contact Jeff Niewedde with Indiana Timing at 812-447-5528 or by email at indianatiming@gmail.com.

Learn more: For information on the Stuff the Bus and Rock’n Ready programs, contact Bonita Dobbs with Jackson County United Way at 812-522-5450 or by email at bonita@jacsy.org.

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Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.