Still serving

The annual Stuff the Bus initiative by area veterans groups will provide supplies for students in local elementary, middle and charter schools.

Col. Craig Ham, president of the Marion County Veterans Council, places backpacks filled with school supplies in a trailer for the Stuff the Bus backpack giveaway at StoreRight Self Storage on Southwest 17th Road in Ocala on Tuesday, July 18, 2023.

Home » Community
Posted July 21, 2023 | By Andy Fillmore

The Stuff the Bus program for 2023 will see some 2,000 backpacks, which are filled with an array of donated school supplies packed by an all-volunteer staff, distributed to area public elementary, middle and charter school students. And this year, a local domestic abuse shelter also will receive backpacks through the program.

The annual Stuff the Bus outreach, now in its 22nd year, is a joint venture of the Marion County Veterans Council (MCVC), Kingdom of the Sun Chapter of the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), and volunteers from a number of area veterans’ organizations.

Members of the local MOAA chapter started the outreach and the number of backpacks filled with materials has steadily increased from a few hundred into now 2,000, according to primary program organizer Craig Ham, a retired U.S. Army colonel and Vietnam War veteran, and president of the MCVC. 

“We were able to collect supplies at the Walmart stores in Silver Springs Shores and west State Road 200 for the first time in three years due to the pandemic. We collected 20 tubs of school supplies and $700 in cash donations,” Ham said.

Ham indicated that a number of local businesses also contributed to the program. The recipients of the backpacks are selected by each school’s guidance counselor, he said.

Kevin Christian, Marion County Public Schools Director of Public Relations, wrote about the impact of the outreach in an email.

“Community supply drives like Stuff the Bus and our own Bus Brigade meet the needs of thousands of students. Be it a package of pencils, crayons, notebooks, hygiene supplies, or even crayons and markers, students use these items every day in their academic pursuits,” Christian wrote. “For some students, backpacks filled with school supplies inspire them to succeed. For others, these backpacks change lives and turn dreams into realities filled with excitement and ambition to learn.” 

Ham said groups of about a dozen volunteers have spent nine hours in two stuffing sessions to fill high quality, colorful Eaglesport brand backpacks at a local storage unit facility.  

A box filled with school supplies for Stuff the Bus.

At a stuffing session on July 17, Carol Walker, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and president of the local MOAA chapter, placed pencils, colored markers and other supplies into plastic boxes that were inserted into each backpack.

Ham stated that to date 866 elementary type backpacks have been stuffed and 500 middle school type backpacks are expected to be done soon, toward a total goal of 2,000 backpacks for this year’s effort.

The elementary backpacks have stationery that is wide-ruled while the writing paper in middle school packs is college-ruled. Implements in each backpack are grade level appropriate. Each backpack contains 19 items.

Volunteers at a recent session also included Wendy Phillips with the On Top of the World Lions Club, Carolyn Smith with MOAA, Fran and Charles Calhoun with the OTOW Veterans Club and Stephen Petty with the MCVC and Marion County Memorial Honor Guard.

Petty, a decorated combat veteran and helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War, said the mission at hand for the veterans representing the numerous local groups was to stuff backpacks and “help the kids.”

The 2007 Bluebird Stuff the Bus school bus will be at the Walmart Supercenter at 2600 SW 19th Ave. Road, Ocala, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, July 29.

To learn more, find the group at

Wendy Phillips of the State Road 200 Lions Club, right, and Carolyn Smith of the Kingdom of the Sun MOAA, left, pack up school supplies.

Carol Walker of the Kingdom of the Sun MOAA and the Marion County Veterans Council carries a large tote filled with crayons out of a storage unit as she helps pack up school supplies.

newspaper icon

Support community journalism

The first goal of the Ocala Gazette is to deliver trustworthy local journalism so corruption, misinformation and abuse are not hidden from the public or unchallenged.

We count on community support to continue this important work. Please donate or subscribe: