Every year, Jeff Taylor asks his mother to say an extra prayer.
The annual request is for Taylor’s Assess the Need back-to-school program, which has provided school supplies to children in need for 20 years.
Though the program has never failed to reach its goal, Taylor still gets a little worried as the first day of school draws near, and that anxiety results in a phone call to his mother asking her to pray a little harder.
But her answer, Taylor said, has never changed.
“I’m always calling mom to pray harder, but she always says ‘I’m praying the same,’” said Taylor, tax assessor of Livingston Parish. “She says, ‘The Lord provides, so I don’t need to pray anymore than I already do.’ I guess I’m the one that needs a little more faith.”
Though this year was different than any in the past, the Assess the Need program still met its goal for the 2019-20 school year, providing school supplies to thousands of students across the parish for what promises to be a challenging school year.
Founded in 2001, the not-for-profit program has helped around 50,000 Livingston Parish children of all grades through the years, with donors funding more than $1 million worth of school supplies. That includes special drives held following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the August 2016 flood.
From using his father’s church as a temporary storage space to standing outside Wal-Mart supercenters asking for donations, Taylor’s Assess the Need program helps anywhere from 2,500 to 3,000 kids a year.
This year’s program helped 3,000 of the school district’s 26,000 students, who began the school year on Aug. 7, with supplies such as backpacks, binders, pencils and pens, markers and crayons, loose leaf paper, and more.
That assistance may be more important now than ever, Taylor said, with the coronavirus pandemic affecting people in Louisiana and across the country.
“Many of our families and local businesses have been directly impacted this year by the coronavirus, which has created an added struggle to what can already be a challenging time for parents and grandparents to finance their children’s needs to go back to school,” Taylor said.
“By helping struggling families receive the school supplies their children need, they can prioritize their limited resources on food and clothing. Our program is working with our local schools to make sure that every student has the tools he or she needs to learn and succeed – whether that’s in a traditional classroom setting or in this new virtual environment.”
This year was perhaps the most challenging of any since the program’s inception, Taylor told The News.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, volunteers weren’t allowed to collect money in front of Wal-Mart centers in Denham Springs, Walker, and Watson as in previous years, which Taylor said “cut deep” into the program’s finances.
Other fundraisers, such as Taylor’s annual Chef’s Showcase, were also nixed because of the coronavirus, which forced the program to eat into the “seed money” it sets aside every year for the next.
“Our giving was way, way down this year,” Taylor said. “We usually try to start each year with a little bit of seed money to go into next year for advertising or to buy some supplies in case something goes wrong, but we’ve used all that up this year. This year cut us deep.”
Because of constraints caused by COVID-19, the campaign was forced to rely on new strategies to raise needed funds for the program.
This year, Assess the Need signs were posted in several area businesses and churches with QR codes on them, allowing donors to use the camera apps on their cell phones to connect directly to a pay portal on Venmo or PayPal.
The signs can be found at any one of the parish’s six Carter’s Grocery Stores in Denham Springs, Livingston, Albany, Springfield, and Walker; Oak Point Fresh Market in Watson, the Neighborhood Walmart in Denham Springs, Big Mike’s Grill in Denham Springs, and Sombrero’s in Walker.
At the same time, links to those digital pay portals are available at www.AssesstheNeed.com. Donations can also be mailed to Assess the Need, P. O. Box 1802, Denham Springs, LA 70727.
Taylor said people can donate throughout the year, adding that all donations are tax-exempt and “100 percent of the money stays in Livingston Parish.” The Assess the Need program is a registered charitable organization, and all donations are eligible for tax deductions.
“This year might be more important than ever for us to collect throughout the year,” Taylor said. “Next year is where it’s gonna hurt.”
Despite the extra challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, the program was once again able to meet its goal this year, something Taylor attributes to the “giving spirit of Livingston Parish.”
Taylor said the program has “never come up short” and credited the volunteers and donors of the parish that have kept the program alive for now two decades.
“I’ve been to different parishes who try to do this, but I’ll put Livingston Parish against any other parish,” he said. “They’ve had other parishes try to start this program, and after a year or so they can’t do it.
“When you look at the magnitude of this program, it’s a testament to the giving spirit of Livingston Parish. You have to know what it is to need to really want to give. I think that’s one of the things about our parish. We’ve always been a poorer parish, but our people give.”
Volunteers gathered at the Livingston Parish Literacy and Technology Center in Walker to distribute supplies to teachers and faculty members two days before the school year began. Employees from all of the district’s schools rolled through a drive-thru system in which volunteers placed the allotted number of boxes into their vehicles in an assembly line.
The supplies are eventually given to students during the first week of school, including some who arrive on the first day of school with nothing.
“Imagine on your first day when everyone has all their supplies and you show up with just a pencil,” Taylor said. “And you don’t say ‘I don’t have this’ one time. You say it over and over again. Then ‘I don’t have’ becomes ‘I don’t care.’
“What we want the kids to know is that the people of this parish are giving money so we can make sure you have the supplies that you need.”
Taylor said there are children who have “literally grown up in this program,” and he’s heard countless success stories from teachers and administrators over the years.
One story that still gives Taylor chills came early on, when a counselor at Southside Elementary told him about a troublesome student who had an even more troubled home life. The father of this particular student was in jail, Taylor said, and her mother was out of the picture, forcing her to live with her grandparents.
When the girl arrived for the start of the school year without supplies, the counselor called her to the office and told her to pick from the pile of backpacks, which were provided to the school through Assess the Need.
The girl said she didn’t have money to pay for the backpack or supplies, but the counselor told her she wouldn’t need it because “the people in Livingston Parish did this for you.”
“The counselor told me that child moved from the back of the room to the front and had all As the rest of the year,” Taylor said. “You never know who this program will help. We don’t know if that kid we’re helping becomes the next minister, school teacher, engineer, doctor, assessor, clerk of court.
“Just giving these kids supplies might help them accomplish things in life that maybe even they didn’t know they were capable of.”