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Programs

The Queen of Cool

July 18, 2011
by Paul Miller

If you happen across a volunteer named Kathy Phifer at School Is Cool backpack-stuffing time, don't be fooled by her seemingly simple job of breaking down cardboard boxes - or as she says, "box breaker-downer." (Main-page photo: the breaker-downer in action in 2009.)
Phifer's contribution in August will belie her deep commitment to School is Cool and the fact that she's one of the program's founders.

Since 1992, School is Cool has provided free school supplies to more than 24,000 local students.Supplying success for school kids

Over the course of 20 years, hundreds of volunteers have helped CSU’s School is Cool provide school supplies to less fortunate children in the Poudre School District. And although she’d much rather give all the credit to dedicated volunteers, Phifer is richly deserving of recognition herself.    

“She’s provided major leadership for School Is Cool since the very beginning,” says Colleen Rodriguez, communications specialist in Communications and Creative Services. “She always has good stories to share and keeps us motivated – but that’s just Kathy. She’s committed to the cause and touches a lot of people.”

From grass-roots onward

School Is Cool started in 1992, when Phifer, who is director of Communications and Creative Services, and Laura Sandell, former PR manager at CSU, brainstormed ways to give kids school supplies and show the community that the University cared about their future.

“Not everybody can say they understand how Christmas morning or birthday celebrations feel,” Phifer says. “But just about everybody knows what it feels like to go to their first day of school with new supplies. There’s such emotion connected to that day – no matter how old you are, no matter where you went to school, that feeling is universal. It crosses all boundaries.”

From that grassroots beginning, Phifer and Sandell began developing what would become one of the University’s most successful school outreach programs. “We wanted less fortunate kids to start school on the same footing as their peers, so we decided to give them school supplies at no cost to the families,” Phifer says. “We wanted them to know CSU believed in them, but we didn’t want to know who they were. Their lives can be difficult enough, so we vowed to keep recipients anonymous and not collect names or other data.”

Toni Scofield stuffs backpacks with school supplies in Ingersoll Hall cafeteria for School Is Cool in August 2004.Commitment to kids

As an educator and School Is Cool volunteer, Ann Randall, personnel development coordinator for the Colorado State Forest Service, echoes the conviction that children should have every possible advantage in school. “I have very fond memories of going with my mother to purchase school supplies and knowing how important it was to start off the year the right way,” she says. “These days, I take my sons shopping and have the same joy, but at the same time, I’m astounded by the cost of school supplies and haunted by how so many families are struggling to provide for their children.”

Randall, who volunteers in multiple roles as well as School Is Cool’s steering committee, says a satisfying moment that stands out to her is when she saw a thank-you letter from a student who had received a backpack. “The simple thank you, the excitement and the enthusiasm I saw in the note (not to mention the first-grader handwriting) was extremely moving, and I never read the note without emotion and gratitude for what CSU is able to do through this program,” she says.

At an award ceremony last year, Phifer remembers a woman who came up to thank her. “The woman told me that, two years ago, her husband had died very unexpectedly, just before school started. ‘I had a second-grader and another child, and the last thing on my mind was getting school supplies,’ she said. One day, the school called and asked her to stop by. ‘They gave me two backpacks. You’ll never know what that did for us. I can’t thank you enough.’

"She was crying, telling me this, and I was crying, and my husband was all teary-eyed,” Phifer says.  

It’s who we are

In 1992, School Is Cool’s inaugural year, several hundred dollars were raised to fill 62 backpacks for delivery to six schools. This year’s goal is to fill and distribute 2,650 backpacks – about 41 times more than in 1992 – to dozens of Poudre School District elementary, middle school and high schools.  

“School is Cool is one of the best examples of who we are as a University and what we do to help the community and the region,” says Tom Milligan, vice president for External Relations. “From the beginning, volunteers have supported this great outreach program to help kids succeed in school, and that’s one of the best ways to support education and the future citizens and leaders of our society.”  

“It’s such a tremendous University and community effort,” Phifer says. “I can’t thank the volunteers enough for being so dedicated to the program and to school kids of all ages.”

What you can do

Donations are accepted year round, but gifts sent by Aug. 5 will be applied toward the 2011-2012 school year. To support the program, send your gift to: School is Cool, Colorado State University Foundation, 9100 Campus Delivery. Online giving also is available.

People interested involunteering may contact Susan Cavender at susan.cavender@colostate.edu or 491-6675.

School is Cool is generously supported by the Bohemian Foundation with assistance from the CSU Bookstore and Fort Collins community.

More information about School is Cool.