Filling a 100-square-foot space with the essentials you’ll need to be successful for the next academic year is no small task, especially when you add it to the endless shopping list of books and school supplies.
This year, families of college students expect to spend an average of $969.88 on back-to-school expenses, according to a National Retail Federation survey. That’s a lot of green, especially for things like XL Twin sheets and mattress toppers that won’t fit any bed off campus. And the truth is, many families aren’t in the position to be taking on such expenses.
“We’re just parents wanting to help other parents,” said Mary Dell Harrington, a Plan II alumna at the University of Texas at Austin and co-founder of Grown & Flown, an online community for parents of budding adults.
She and her co-founder Lisa Heffernan organized a mass donation of dorm supplies to 225 students in the UT Austin Foundation Scholars Program after a member in their Facebook group posted an inspiring video last fall of a similar feat happening at another university.
“There was a great outcry of people who wanted to get involved,” Harrington said.
“So many people in our group had been through this process,” Heffernan said. “We had shopped with our own kids, dragging them through Bed Bath & Beyond and all the other stores. We know how expensive it is and how difficult it is, so we wanted to help out others who might need that help.”
As donations came pouring in from moms and dads across the country, Harrington and Heffernan reached out to businesses and the UT Austin College of Liberal Arts for help in getting 22,000 dorm items in the hands of students who need them.
Harrington and Heffernan greeted each student as they handed them their dorm bundle: a laundry hamper filled with sheets, a pillow, a shower caddy, a surge protector, towels, a mattress pad and a bedbug encasement (donated by AllerEase).
“All the things you need to get through the day and get through the night,” Heffernan said.
As students and their parents filtered in, smiles plastered to their face, to collect their new belongings, the atmosphere was filled with gratitude and anticipation for new beginnings.
“I’m so thankful for the help because as a first-year student, it’s easy to begin to feel a bit lost,” said Alejandra Cordova, a freshman government major, who left excited to adorn her new room.
The day provoked nostalgia for Harrington, as she recalled her first day as a Longhorn.
“It’s definitely a moment. And it’s a moment you, as a parent, will always remember,” Harrington said. “I can remember by parents driving me from Fort Worth to Austin, as I sat in the backseat with a little plant that must have been very important to me at the time. It was very quiet, you know? Because it was very emotional.”
Leaving home for the first time, Harrington and Heffernan described, can be scary for both parents and their children. It’s the pinnacle reason they co-founded Grown & Flown — to connect parents with other parents as a support system and with advice on how to stay connected with their children—and a reason these women wanted to help new students feel welcome and at home.
“I love the fact that we’re encountering these students as they’re first becoming Longhorns because my hope for them would be that they would have the great four years that I had here,” Harrington said. “So, it’s exciting for me to see them and participate a little bit with Grown & Flown, to support them in this way that is very much like the way that we’ve done with our own kids — trying to feather their nest a little bit.”