All are invited to attend the Boone and Blowing Rock Fourth of July parades and wave at the volunteers for the third annual Back 2 School Festival.

Those volunteers are inviting High Country residents and visitors alike to “pack the bus.” According to event organizers, the Back 2 School Festival is designed to help Watauga County students start school with the supplies needed to succeed.

“Each year, the cost of supplies goes up, while school budgets shrink,” an event organizer said. “Parents and teachers are somewhat caught in the middle, buying pencils, Clorox wipes, glue sticks and paper towels to help make it through the year.

“Approximately 1,700 Watauga students participate in the free and reduced lunch program. Many of these students and others need help to afford all the supplies modern students need. School supplies cost about $100 per student. Add in costs for school photos, field trips and school fees, and many parents are challenged to afford all these needs. Remember when you routinely bought that new pair of shoes for the first day of school? Many families in our county might not have this option, but you can help.”

Seeing no easy solution to the rising cost of school supplies, area resident Amber Bateman, who heads the High Country’s Quiet Givers organization, teamed up with other creative and passionate people, including members of The Children’s Council, the Western Youth Network, Hospitality House and others, and grew the idea of a county-wide free school-supplies festival.

To make the event fun and inviting, they included hands-on activities and invited local businesses, public service agencies and churches to host booths to share what else they offer local families. Five hundred students attended the first year, and more than 1,000 are expected this year. There will be several bilingual (Spanish and English) translators on hand, as well.

The festival will take place at Watauga High School Aug. 8, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with a “soft opening” for students with special needs and their families from 9 to 10 a.m. that same day. Families must be registered to attend the soft opening.

Not only is this festival a chance for local families to prepare their youngsters with school supplies from earphones to backpacks, Bateman said, but it’s also an opportunity to bring the Watauga community closer for the sake of their children.

“We want the festival to be a place where youth understand their role in our community and feel that they have the power to be the change they want to see,” she said.

The festival is organized and staffed by volunteers and funded through local grants and donations. Those looking to volunteer can visit www.back2schoolfestival.org to learn how they can help during or leading up to the event.

Organizers also seek funding from local businesses, and the website explains how individual and business donations of money, volunteers or supplies will be recognized.

Pack the Bus launches July 4, with a school bus and volunteers in both parades. Afterward, the buses will be parked at Yadkin Bank on Blowing Rock Road and New Market Center off U.S. 421 until Aug. 4. They’ll be open and video-monitored, and donors can hop in and deliver the supplies they’ve bought.

For more information, email Amber Bateman at [email protected], or visit www.back2schoolfestival.organd www.facebook.com/Back2SchoolFestival.