By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator

A worldwide pandemic and a fluid back-to-school calendar presented anomalous challenges to the annual Uniforms for Kids program.

But with a bit of ingenuity, a new matrix of distribution was developed and the 23-year-old ministry of providing school uniforms to thousands of needy students throughout the Diocese of Baton Rouge has had a rippleless transition.

“It has been a very interesting year to say the least,” said Michael Acaldo, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which administers the program.  “Of all 23 years, this has been the most difficult by far because of the uncertainties and setbacks, and the everchanging school year.”

Uniforms for Kids typically distributes more than 12,000 school uniforms annually to 6,000 underprivileged  students, although the number can run as high as 8,000. In the Baton Rouge area, what amounts to a school uniform store only with no price tags is set up beginning in June at a St. Vincent facility along Plank Road, with students able to try on several different sizes under the watchful  eye of their parents, checking for proper fit.

Only this year, the coronavirus pandemic deemed in-person distribution unsafe, so St. Vincent de Paul volunteers and staff members reached out to the various school boards in the 12 civil parishes of the diocese for assistance. What evolved was a model of efficiency, where families in need contact counselors at the schools their students attend outlining their needs.

The uniforms are then distributed to the proper students through the respective schools.

“Trying to stuff 150 people through a small distribution area is not in compliance with (Gov. John Bel Edwards’) mandate so we made a determination that we were going to get with the East Baton Rouge School Board and work with other school boards in the diocese and come up with a plan to distribute and work out a plan of distribution through the school counselors,” Acaldo said. “The counselors and school personnel in (civil) parishes come into contact with the kids anyway, so it relieves us of making that contact. The fewer contacts the fewer chances of exposure.

“We are just trying to do the best we can under difficult circumstances and so far it’s working.”

Exacerbating the dilemma is the uncertainty of when the various public school systems are scheduled to open in-person learning. Although students in some public school systems have already returned to the classroom, others are currently attending classes virtually, with a return to the classroom scheduled at a later date.

East Baton Rouge Parish School District students are not expected to return to in-person learning until after Labor Day,  but Acaldo noted that some of the public schools are requiring students to wear uniform tops during virtual learning classes.

“All of the school boards have been wonderful to work with, and we have also worked with the charter schools,” Acaldo said. “Our aim is to help any child that is in need of a uniform.”

Picking up the tab for potentially 16,000 uniforms was a concern. Each uniform cost $12, and students are provided two uniforms each, so the tally escalates quickly.

St. Vincent de Paul traditionally sets a goal of distributing 16,000 uniforms, and typically raises from $150,000 to $200,000 annually. Those donations, combined with “gently used” uniforms that are also donated, helps the agency surpass the goal of 6,000 students.

This year, even working its way through difficult economic times, the agency has already raised more than $100,000.

Acaldo citied WAFB-TV, the Capital Area United Way, the Greater Baton Rouge State Fair Foundation, the CarMax Foundation and the W.R. Grace & Co. and Albemarle chemical plant all made donations ranging from $15,000 to $25,000.

“There was a lot of uncertainty what would happen this year and all of the contributors kept their focus on the kids,” Acaldo said. “We see every child we help as a child of God and every kid we help is a victory and that is what we are trying to do. We have not had to turn any children away and certainly do not want to be in that position.

Acaldo said parents need to contact the counselor at their children’s respective school to learn more about the program. He said anyone encountering difficulties navigating the nuances of the program or even wishing to donate funds to help buy additional uniforms should call 225-387-8833.