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Inside Winona: Worried about how to pay for school supplies? Mandi Olson, director of Ready Set School, is here to help

May 20, 2019

The school year may be winding down, but just blink and it’ll be September again — which for some students means new clothes, new shoes, new notebooks and folders and freshly sharpened pencils.

But for families who can’t always afford it, that time of year can be tough. This week on Inside Winona we sat down with Mandi Olson, director of Ready Set School, a local nonprofit that funds new school supplies for lower-income students in Winona County.

This is Ready Set School’s busy season: They’re both accepting applications from families who want to receive the assistance and collecting donations to help them provide it. Hit play below to learn how you can get involved.

The following interview has been edited for both clarity and brevity. To hear Olson’s unedited and uncut answers, tune into Inside Winona at winonadailynews.com or search Inside Winona on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Pocket Casts.

Q: For those who might not know, what is Ready Set School, and who’s eligible for it?

A: There’s basically two parts to Ready Set School. We need to raise money, and we need to give it out to families here in Winona County. To be eligible for a voucher, a family needs to be receiving free and reduced lunches, a housing subsidy or a food benefit like TANF or WIC.

Q: Where are you in the process right now?

A: It’s both the big fundraising campaign and also the application period. From March to May, we work to raise about $40,000 of the $70,000 overall budget. And at the same time, April 15 through May 31, our applications are open. The vouchers will be mailed out to them in July, and they can use them in August and September.

Q: How many kids received vouchers last year?

A: We had just over 600 students receive vouchers, and that is down from previous years. I did pull a stat because I was curious: From the Minnesota Department of Health, there are about 1,800 students that are eligible for free and reduced lunches (in Winona County). So we definitely have a gap, and we could be serving more students.

We worked this year to brainstorm different ideas on how to get the message out there more. One of the goals we had was to collaborate with agencies that serve similar clientele, so we have Miller Mentoring helping us promote this, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Food Shelf, and on and on.

Q: Your website says Ready Set School needs to raise $44,000 by the end of May. How are you doing on that goal?

A: We’re at about $38,000 or $39,000 right now, so about $5,000 to go. Over the course of the last six weeks, we’ve had a lot of community fundraisers, so that’s been very positive. And most of those have increased their donation from the previous year. I feel like everything has gone really well. ... I will say donations are still coming in daily. I just picked up another two that came in the mail. So we really appreciate the community support.

Q: You’ve said you appreciate connecting people who want to donate to the people who need it. Has there been a moment that solidifies for you why you do this work?

A: I’ve had teachers reach out to me over email requesting some school supplies that we have in our storage unit, and I can feel how grateful they are for this program. For example, I just had a teacher from a small school district say, “We’re running out of erasers and we have a couple more weeks of school left. Is there any chance that you have any?” And I was like, “Yeah, absolutely. Where can I drop them off?”

Q: You’ve been director for about six months now. What does the next six months hold?

A: We have to figure out how much the voucher is going to be worth this year, and mail that out to families in July. There’s a lot of logistical things that have to be done. For goals, I want to sit down and reflect on how long things took me and how we can do things more efficient, and how we can make a bigger impact for both raising funds and providing the vouchers for the families.

Q: When the families get those vouchers, what are the local businesses they can use them at?

A: We have Walmart on board again this year, and Rogan’s Shoes. They’d like to get one more store on board, but with timing we’re not able to get that going for 2019. We’re hoping to look at it for 2020. But that’s what’s so great about this organization too, is community members donate, it’s given to their neighbors, and then they enter and spend the money right here in Winona.

Q: What has it been like working with the Ready Set School board?

A: The board for Ready Set School is really amazing. They’re very energized and very engaged. When I started in November, they had just had a goal-planning session in October, and one of the things they wanted to do is restructure the board. I took those notes and I took some feedback, and we were able to create a structure that board members could plug themselves into certain areas of the organization they were a little bit more passionate about.

They also had a goal to improve relations outside of the city. It’s easy to focus on Winona because it is the biggest city. The board has a couple people from St. Charles and Lewiston, and with their help, we’re trying to plug into different events in those communities so Ready Set School is better known. Then we, in turn, reach that goal of more fundraising dollars and also more applications.

Q: What, to you, is the impact of a kid being able to get new supplies or new clothes at the beginning of a school year?

A: Everyone can relate to understanding the first day of school. And for many people, it’s very positive. But for other people, it can be negative, because it’s a reminder of their family situation of, “I can’t have the new sneakers, I can’t have the new notebooks,” and that sort of thing. It’s important because we all want kids to start off on the right foot. That’s a very important thing for learning and attention in the classroom.

The first day of school is kind of like the first impression of the school year. So if they can start off on the right foot, that’s positive for everybody. The student. The teachers. The family.

Q: If people would like to donate to Ready Set School, where can they go?

A: All our information on how to donate is on our website, readysetschoolwinona.org. We also put a lot of information on our Facebook page, and we would love to encourage folks to find Ready Set School Winona and like it to learn about different events going on, learn about the program, learn who we’re serving.

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