Project Fresh Start Gives Children of Portage County School Supply Relief

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United Way of Portage County Project Fresh Start Blenker Companies 2017 Drive Chairs
United Way of Portage County Volunteer Center created the Project Fresh Start program to provide free school supply items for K-12 children who qualify for the free or reduced price meal program through their school district. Blenker Companies, Inc., a building solutions provider in Amherst, Wisconsin has collected school supplies for the Project Fresh Start program for almost a decade.

The United Way of Portage County is providing relief to low-income families who are in need of school supplies for the upcoming school year with the annual Project Fresh Start drive, which runs from June 1 until Aug. 12.

According to Cecily Mileski, volunteer engagement associate for the United Way of Portage County, there are over 3,000 K-12 students who qualify for free or reduced price meal programs through their school district who could benefit from the Project Fresh Start program.

Registration is required in order for students to receive the school supplies. July 28 is the deadline for eligible participants to register for the items. Registration can be done online at, at school offices and the United Way of Portage County office.

Students registered for Project Fresh Start will also be able to receive free clothing through Project Fresh Clothes. St. Paul’s United Methodist Church coordinates the partner program.

Mileski said Project Fresh Start is mainly run on the donations of organizations and individuals, so it is extremely important for the United Way to receive donations to help the children of Portage County.

In order to offer these school supplies to children, the program has designated sites throughout Portage County where community members can drop them off. These locations include the United Way, the Portage County Public Library and Shopko stores. Organizations, groups or businesses can register to be a drop site partner at

The United Way of Portage County will also be implementing a new online donation platform this year called Roonga, allowing individuals to choose items to purchase to put toward the drive until July 23.

Mileski said Roonga can be helpful for those who don’t have the time to go out and purchase supplies, it allows organizations the option to create team drives and is a great option for competitions between departments.

The United Way of Portage County started collecting these school supplies June 1 and will continue to collect items for the physical drive until Aug. 9. The items will be taken to P.J. Jacobs Jr. High School, where they will be sorted and distributed to students Aug. 12.

This year marks the ninth year that all grades, from K-12, will be offered school supplies. Last year, the drive impacted over 1,000 students as a result of the efforts of more than 70 organizations that collected items for the program and volunteered their time, as well.

Mileski said the children and the parents are very grateful and appreciative to receive supplies and without Project Fresh Start, they would not have the items necessary to start the school year.

Mileski said she sends out surveys to parents of families who have received the school supplies to determine how these items improved their lives. She said a few stories stood out.

In one account, a mother and her children were able to leave a domestic abuse situation and move forward as a result of receiving items from Project Fresh Start. In another account, a family didn’t have to decide between school supplies or food for themselves because Project Fresh Start provided them with the necessities for school.

Jessica Anunson, project management clerk for Blenker Companies, Inc., also said the program changes lives. Anunson believes children perform better in school because they have the necessary supplies.

“They do not feel left out or stressed that they are not equal to the other students,” Anunson said.

Anunson said the program lifted her out of her own financial stress she experienced after turning to Project Fresh Start and getting the necessary items for her children for the school year.
Because Project Fresh Start was there for her when she needed it, she wants to help return the favor. She is now in a position to help and encourage others to give back.

The United Way is now asking for more than 64 volunteers to help others give back Aug. 12, the day of distribution.

“Programs like this one depend on the support of individuals in our community to make them successful. Without the donations and numerous volunteers—we wouldn’t be able to provide the much needed supplies to as many students as we do,” Anunson said.

In her own position, Anunson has seen Blenker Companies’ donation amount increase every year, but she thinks there could be more room for growth.

“Each year it grows, but the need for the supplies grows each year and also, I would like to see the drive get to a point where we can say ‘We helped all of the children who were in need and had supplies left over,’” Anunson said.

In order to make this dream a reality, Blenker Companies, Inc. will be a collection partner once again this year. Anunson has organized two hot lunches during the month of July, when employees can raise money. Those who donate will be eligible for special incentives.

“I find comfort in being able to pay it forward,” Anunson said. “This is one of the best programs as far as preparing our children, our future leaders, for what lies ahead.”

Pam Jewell, United Way of Portage County drive chair also believes in the “pay it forward” philosophy because of her own life experiences.

“When I was in college, I rarely had enough money even for food, but I was lucky enough to have my best friend’s family who treated me like their own daughter and brought enough food for both of us,” Jewell said. “This is just one instance of the kindness of others making my life better.”

Jewell said she tries to find someone who needs her help in the hopes that it will give them a better life and some day—they can do the same for another.

Keeping in mind with this philosophy, Jewell and Peter Blenker, United Way of Portage County drive chair, have built a house bookcase for a school room in Portage County to serve as a reminder that reading at home is as important as reading in school. They’ll be showcasing it at the Project Fresh Start kick-off and they will be raffling it off Aug. 11.

“To this day, I read daily and belong to a book club to discuss what impact a specific book had on me,” Jewell said. “To think that we could set another person on this path brings me great joy and peace.”