An effort between the Tellico Village Kiwanis Club, Malibu Boats and both Loudon County school systems helped get numerous students ready for the upcoming school year.

But the COVID-19 pandemic made the partnership challenging.

“It’s too important of a project to not find a way to make it work,” Jerry Wrubel, Kiwanis Club event co-coordinator, said. “We’ve had a couple of ideas and the first couple of ideas weren’t manageable. We wanted to make sure that every party involved was comfortable with the process because every organization has different protocols. Between Malibu’s generosity, between Walmart’s cooperation and, of course, the Family Resource Centers, we’re going to make it work.

“Especially this year when you think about it, first day of school — hopefully there will be one — it’s even almost more important this year because of the other stresses that the families might be feeling to make sure these young children feel good when they go to school,” he added.

In years past a group of about 50 students — 25 from each school system in the county — would gather at Walmart for a ceremony before each family shopped in the store with $100. This year Family Resource Center representatives met at Walmart and individually shopped with families.

Wrubel said $5,000 was set aside for the event.

“When they’re shopping it’s 100 bucks and all the purchases are vetted to make sure that they’re school clothing only, not supplies, nothing else,” Wrubel said. “Last year I almost teared up, there was a little boy that hugged me. This cute little kid grabs me at the knee, and I’m looking at these little kids and I’m going, ‘It’s a good feeling and I know that the children and the families really appreciate it’.”

As of Thursday, Cindy Purdy, Loudon County Schools FRC director, said she had shopped with 18 students.

“It is a different experience this year, but it has been very, very good,” Purdy said. “I can’t say enough how much we appreciate everything that everyone does for these families, because these kids were so excited when they were at the cash register and checking out. ‘Look what I’ve got, Ms. Cindy! Look what I get to wear to school! I’m wearing this the first day!’ It just means a lot. It means a lot to these kids and their families.”

Wrubel estimated the remaining students would be shopped for by the end of the week.

“It impacts the students and the parent, too, especially during this crisis of COVID-19,” Mary Gonzalez, Lenoir City Schools interpreter, said. “Children are happy to hear they’re going to be helped and excited to go back to school because they’re going to be ready.”

Susan Fox, Lenoir City Schools FRC director, said the shopping effort might be more important now since some families faced financial difficulties caused by the virus.

She thanked Kiwanis for continuing the program.

“I can’t help but tell you it’s not a little disappointing because it’s always a celebration,” Fox said. “It’s always a celebration for us to come together with Kiwanis, Malibu Boats and Walmart and then our families. To be able to see the sheer number that are helped, but most importantly we’re honored that they have decided to continue the tradition of supporting families. That’s the overarching goal is to support families and children and they’ve never wavered from that. It was, ‘How do we make this work?’”

Donna Tallent, Malibu Boats vice president of manufacturing, said Thursday was a good way for the company to reach out.

“I mean, obviously we have the funds to do it, but we needed somebody who had the time and the resources to do it,” she said. “So we reached out to the Kiwanis and started working with them because they do such a good job and they had such good resources in our community. It’s very important to Malibu that we be able to help and support the children in our direct communities.”