Kindergarten teacher Jan Owens has a vacation story that's turned into school bags for hundreds of Callaway Hills Elementary School students over the past two years — supplies sewn by someone more than 700 miles away.
Owens is a vacation neighbor on Dauphin Island, Alabama, with Carolyn "Nan" Tate and her family.
Tate, of Semmes, Alabama, is an 87-year-old widow who lives alone, Owens said.
Owens was talking one day with one of Tate's three daughters, Sandra Bryant, about Callaway Hills' positive behavior incentive program and "Cougar General" — a "store" at school where once a month, students can spend the points they've earned each day through positive behaviors.
Callaway Hills is also one of the schools in the Jefferson City school district where all students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch because of the school's participation in the federal Community Eligibility Provision program. Schools are eligible for CEP when at least 40 percent of their students are in food-assistance programs.
Owens said Tate was moved to help out after she heard about Callaway Hills' students' needs — many of the items in Cougar General are basic necessities, such socks, pencils, pens, toiletries, and some basic fun items such as toy cars, putty and stuffed animals.
"They call her the 'bag lady' at Hobby Lobby," Owens said of Tate's decision to take it upon herself to buy material for and sew backpack-style and pencil bags for Callaway Hills' students.
Tate's bags come in a variety of patterns and materials. "This is just the type of person she is," Owens said, adding Tate did not tell her beforehand what she was going to do.
She said Tate doesn't have a background in education, but owned a commercial plant business with her husband.
At this point, Owens and principal Todd Shalz guessed three-quarters of the students at Callaway Hills have received at least one bag Tate has sewn for Cougar General.
Cougar General is also supplied by Scholastic, Unilever, teachers, parents, the school's PTO, student council and other community members.
The school has sent some of its gratitude to Tate. Students made a wall decoration for her, and everyone received a bag through the store sent her a handwritten thank-you note after the first year of Cougar General being open, Owens said.
She added Tate's family said the work has been good for her, too. "It keeps her arthritic hands busy, and as they say, it also provides 'a purpose in life.' From this giving, she has made many friends which she can visit and socialize with outside her home as she travels to purchase fabric and supplies. This project has given her direction and purpose while keeping the well-being of children her focus," Owens wrote in an email.