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Smithfield Foods, YMCA donate school supplies

Eighteen years ago, a mother was shopping for school supplies with her two daughters when they noticed another family doing the same — only that family was trying to decide what they could afford and what would need to wait until the next paycheck.

As Leslie Bryant of the Luter Family YMCA in Smithfield tells the story, the mother with two daughters decided to load up her cart with school supplies, met up with the other family at the register, and said something like, “This is a gift to you from one mom to another.”

That’s how the Y’s Bright Beginnings program was born, Bryant said. Its purpose is to provide children from low-income families or those that have experienced other hardships with clothes and a backpack filled with school supplies for the coming school year.

The morning of Aug. 25, a group of Smithfield Foods employees arrived at the Harbourview Kohl’s in North Suffolk. Smithfield, Bryant said, has been one of the program’s partners for the past 14 years. The company provides not only an annual monetary donation but also volunteers to do the shopping.

“We’re so excited to be here this morning supporting the Luter Family YMCA’s Bright Beginnings program,” said Jonathan Toms, charitable initiatives manager for Smithfield Foods. “We’ve got nearly 20 of our Smithfield Foods team members out here volunteering their time. … This program allows us to ensure that all of the students in our area have that equitable access to education, so students who just need that little bit of a helping hand, we’re here to provide that to them.”

Bright Beginnings is serving 80 Isle of Wight County Schools students this year.

The Y accepts children into the program based on referrals from schools and nonprofits that work with families facing economic challenges.

“Traditionally, the children would be here with us today,” Bryant said. “Their families would have dropped them off at the Y; they would ride the YMCA bus with staff and come and meet the volunteers here at this store.”

But for two school years in a row now, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced some changes.

This year, the volunteers were given an age and sex for whom to shop, and parents then picked up the supplies at the Y at staggered times so the children were not all in one room at the same time. But the volunteers were able to include a personal note inside each child’s backpack.

“It’s more than just the items that the children get; it’s them realizing leaders in our community such as Smithfield Foods believe in their community,” Bryant said. “They give back; they believe in helping each child succeed.”