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This article originally appeared on Mechanics Bank Community Partners.

Mechanics Bank

K to College: Supplying Students with What it Takes

It all started four years ago at a UC-Berkeley fraternity house. Talking with fellow students, Benito Delgado-Olson, the son of social workers, had a brainstorm about how they could create their own nonprofit.

Having done his senior thesis on the Oakland Unified School District, he had observed small, isolated efforts to furnish low-income students with supplies. These attempts, he believed, were noble but inefficient. Instead he imagined an innovative business model for a large-scale yet tightly coordinated effort to furnish a tote bag filled with the right school supplies to students, from kindergarten through high school.

The nonprofit K to College took off like a bottle rocket. Last year, the organization distributed school supply kits worth an estimated $12 million to more than 170,000 students in 24 California school districts. The sheer magnitude is impressive: the kits were enough to fill 170 semi-tractor-trailers.

In the year to come, K to College plans to expand exponentially, aiming to provide school supply kits to some 400,000 young Californians. For many it will be their first time ever to attend school with appropriate markers, binders, graphing paper and art supplies.

Each donation of $22, leveraged with corporate support, will provide a needy student with a grade-appropriate tote of supplies worth $65 to $70. And the nonprofit spends less than 1 percent of its budget on overhead. No wonder it has earned the endorsement of school superintendents and the California PTA.

How does K to College do it? One key is buying in bulk. This allows the organization to negotiate discounts well below what individual or small group purchasers could commandeer. It also forms partnerships with collaborators such as Give Something Back Office Supplies. Delgado-Olson said a survey of a dozen school districts found that K to College paid about 60 percent less than the districts themselves do for supplies.

Another key is that by securing a welfare waiver, K to College pays no state sales tax on school supply purchases.

In addition, K to College struck an arrangement with the Prison Industry Authority: inmates at Folsom Prison, participating in a voluntary rehabilitation program, work the production line assembling some 1,500 kits an hour.

With Delgado-Olson serving as executive director, the K to College board includes several recent graduates of UC Berkeley who launched the organization. In addition, the board is headed by veteran public relations expert Don Solem, and includes seasoned professionals such as Children Now president Ted Lempert, Dublin Mayor Tim Sbranti, and Richard Stephenson, executive vice president and general counsel for Mechanics Bank, one of the earliest supporters of K to College.

“The board benefits from our very interesting mix of older hands with experience in business or politics, and then a younger group that were with Benito when they were students at Berkeley,” said Stephenson. “What really impresses me as we discuss different ventures is how absolutely excellent those Berkeley grads are at analyzing whether various ideas fit with the mission and business model of K to College. They have a very clear vision, and it’s impossible not to share their enthusiasm.”

K to College’s goal is to serve all low-income Bay Area students, and to consider how to spread the concept nationwide. “This program arose out of necessity,” said Delgado-Olson. “California public schools have record enrollment in the free/reduced lunch, and if those kids can’t afford lunch, they can’t afford school supplies. We believe where there is crisis, there’s also opportunity.”