It's a dream shopping scenario - come in, fill a basket with shirts, pants, shoes, coats and a backpack filled with school supplies and upon checkout, the items ring up at no cost.

Such is the case for hundreds of Southwest school children who participate in the Grauer Back-to-School Project each year. The program allows low-income families to shop for clothes and supplies from a collection of items that have been donated throughout the year.

'In the past four years we have helped over 2,300 children be ready for the first day of school so they pass the first test at school and hopefully feel better about being more like everyone else,' said Nancy Grauer Scheele, an event founder.

Families qualify by receiving free or reduced lunch at school. Each year, approximately 650 students from kindergarten through 12th grade arrive at the fair-like setting where they are entertained by musicians, firefighters and mascots - like Bucky the Beaver and Chuck E. Cheese - and get valuable information about health and dental care from various booths.

When it's their turn, the children go into the distribution shop and travel through the racks of clothes with a personal shopper who makes sure they find everything on their list from the donated new and used items. The students can shop for styles, colors and sizes that work best for them, making their shopping experience similar to back-to-school shopping at the mall.

'It is estimated that most parents spend approximately $300 per child for back-to-school clothing and supplies and the families of the children who benefit from Grauer simply can't afford that,' said Lori Metz, co-director for the project.

The back-to-school distribution is in its fifth year and was inspired by Grace and Marion Grauer, longtime Southwest residents who were members of St. Luke Lutheran Church. The Grauers committed their lives to giving to others and volunteering. When the couple died in a car accident in 1998, their children created the Back-to School Project as a legacy to them.

'They both volunteered with children all their lives and helped organize a similar project in North Portland in the early '90s,' said Scheele of her parents. 'My mom was always asking my sister, brother and myself what we had done for someone else each day.'

Scheele said her parents' teachings stayed with her. As the program grows, she finds that meeting people whose lives have been made a little easier by the project has made the work worth it.

Several families have had touching stories. One mother said she and her children had left an abusive relationship with only the clothes on their backs. She had been worried that her second-grade daughter would only have flip-flop sandals to wear to school even when the weather turned rainy. The mother said she was so thankful to have some help from the project.

Today the project is a partnership involving many local churches and Neighborhood House, Southwest's primary social service agency.

Last year, during the 100th anniversary of Neighborhood House, the organization awarded the Grauer Project a high honor, the Century of Service Award.

This year's event will take place on Saturday, Aug. 12 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at St. Luke Lutheran Church, near Gabriel Park. No pre-registration is necessary. For more information or to donate items, please call Neighborhood House at 503-244-2292, ext. 213.

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