Asia Joyner and her mother, Melodie Goodwin, show off supplies

Asia Joyner, 9, was hanging out at the recreation center in San Pablo Park on Thursday evening when someone handed her a bulging canvas tote bag.

The fourth grader at Berkeley Arts Magnet looked inside and found some binders, a white board, crayons, colored pencils, and a few packs of binder paper. There were enough school supplies in the bag for a year, and they were Joyner’s to keep.

Joyner is one of 3,000 Berkeley students, and 150,000 students around the state, who will be getting $10 million worth of school supplies this year – for free.

The give-away program is a joint venture between K to College, an Oakland non-profit, Give Something Back Office Supplies, the largest office supply company on the West Coast, and $3.5 million in funds from the government’s Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“Kids are told to go to school and excel and do well, but they can’t even afford the basic instructional material they need to do that,” said Benito Delgado-Olson, the executive director of K to College. “If we didn’t do this, it wouldn’t happen. The program arose out of necessity.”

Melodie Goodwin, Joyner’s mother, said the supplies will come in handy.

“We don’t have any of that stuff, actually,” she said as she picked up her daughter from the recreation center. “That’s all stuff we can use. It’s helpful.”

The school supply give-away program may be the largest of its kind in the country, growing in just two years from a small project with one school district into one that helps students in 28 different districts, mostly around northern California.

Delgado-Olson, now 26, first came up with the idea in 2007 while he was a senior at UC Berkeley. An American Studies major and the son of two social workers, Delgado-Olson had always been civically engaged.  As graduation grew nearer, Delgado-Olson was plagued with questions about what to do with his life and he realized he wanted to help underprivileged kids.

At first he raised money to help low-income, but high achieving, juniors pay for SAT preparation classes. But Delgado-Olson soon decided that providing school supplies to poor families was a more direct method of addressing the achievement gap.

Benito Delgado-Olson

In January 2009, Delgado-Olson and a group of UC Berkeley volunteers gave away 300 bags of school supplies to Berkeley students. In the spring of 2010, the organization collaborated with 10 school districts and handed out 26,000 bags of school supplies.

When the federal government passed the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Delgado-Olson saw a way to leverage that money into creating a much larger program. K to College worked closely with the social services departments of Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Francisco counties to channel federal funds into the program. Give Something Back Office Supplies joined as the private vendor, and is providing $65 worth of school supplies in each bag for only $22. The $3.5 million in government funding is leveraged to distribute $10 million in supplies, said Delgado-Olson.

Inmates at Folsom State Prison played a key role in this year’s give away. Originally, UC Berkeley students packed the tote bags, but the program’s new size made that impossible. Democratic state Senator Mark DeSaulnier from Concord suggested using inmates to Delgado-Olson. About 50 prisoners from Folsom assembled the kits early this month, and K to College will mail their children a tote bag with a note from their fathers as a thank you.

Photo courtesy of Mark Coplan, BUSD

The Berkeley Unified School District notified the 9,000 families eligible for free or reduced lunches that they could get a free bag of school supplies, according to BUSD spokesman Mark Coplan. Students could pick up their bags at various spots on Thursday, including San Pablo Park and the south Berkeley YMCA.

Bags have already started to be distributed to students in Oakland, San Francisco, and Contra Costa counties.

The kits are geared to the needs of students at various grade levels. The bags for kindergarteners and first graders, who are just learning to read and write, have fat pencils. Those for the upper grades have protractors, index cards, white out, and subject dividers, among other supplies.

“I got a few things I needed,” said Angie Burkley, 16, a junior at the Green Academy at Berkeley High. “Notebooks and stuff. I always run out during the school year so it’s good I got those.”

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...