It was a simple idea dreamed up by Chester Upland School District teachers who had been working without a contract for three years, and without necessary supplies for even longer: a holiday drive among area educators to collect pencils, paper, glue sticks, and all the other basics so often missing from their classrooms.
The result was a torrent of essential supplies that has overwhelmed teachers in the economically disadvantaged Delaware County district - kind of like the closing scene in It's A Wonderful Life, if George Bailey's neighbors had come bearing crayons, notebooks, and erasers.
"My front seat is completely packed, and I have to go back to Unionville for a second pickup," said Zeek Weil, regional advocacy coordinator for the Pennsylvania State Education Association in Southeastern Pennsylvania, who helped organize the drive. "It's out of control! We have over 300 boxes."
At noon Monday, Weil, Chester Upland teachers, and colleagues from other districts in the Philadelphia suburbs will deliver all those boxes in a truck to Chester High School, where they will hold a rally at 4:15 p.m. before everything gets divvied up. They intend the event to both dramatize teachers' concerns that students are getting shortchanged and to embarrass district officials over what they say is lack of support for classroom education.
"If I go [to the office] and say, 'I really don't have any pens. Can I have pens?' they'll give me six pens," said Michele Paulick, an English teacher at the district's STEM Magnet High School and president of the Chester Upland Education Association. "We're on such short rations, they'll give me what they can . . . but we don't have it."
Responding to a request for comment, Assistant Superintendent Andria Saia said, "I'm very happy with the generosity of the unions across the southeastern region to our union, and I think it's really wonderful that people pull together as educators."
Poverty-plagued, state-controlled Chester Upland has struggled with massive deficits that reached $24 million in the last fiscal year, as the cost of educating students who've been switching to local charter schools in a steady exodus has overwhelmed the district's ability to balance the books.
Chester Upland's 300 unionized teachers and staff - who volunteered at the start of the current academic year to work without pay so schools could open on time - have gone more than three years without a contract and five years without a pay raise. Meanwhile, they say they often pay for supplies with their own ailing checkbooks.
Paulick estimates she spends $600 a year.
"It's a constant thing of not having," said Maria Weatherly, who grew up in Chester as one of eight children and returned in 2014 to teach Algebra II at Chester High School. She said the need to buy basic supplies for her students - pencils, notebooks, even batteries for their calculators - is never-ending.
Weatherly said she has one set of books for the five classes she teaches. "If I want to assign homework from the book, I have to make 110 copies during the day," she said. "All of that paper has to come from somewhere - which is me. We get two reams a month. That lasts about a week."
Her daughter, also a math teacher at Chester High, just spent $40 for calculator batteries, she said.
Teachers in nearby districts also occasionally dip into their pockets for supplies, but rarely as deeply as their Chester Upland counterparts. They responded in a big way to the holiday plea for help.
Dan McGrath, president of the Interboro Education Association and a seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teacher at Prospect Park School, said word went out that "Staples was having a huge sale on reams of paper so . . . everyone hit that up."
"There's always paper in my classroom, basic supplies," said Karin Suzadail, who teaches Latin at Owen J. Roberts High School in Pottstown. Sympathetic to Chester Upland's plight, the school's faculty filled more than a dozen boxes to the brim with everything from construction paper to Lysol wipes.
Weil, the PSEA rep, said that the delivery of so many supplies, from teachers in at least 16 districts as well as retirees, should shame state and district officials over the lack of both adequate funding and respect for unionized teachers' contributions.
"We want to say to lawmakers that this is an embarrassment on our state, when we can't come up with supplies for our students to learn in school," Weil said. "Do cops pay for the gas they put in their cars? No."
Chester Upland teachers don't disagree, but they're also grateful for what feels almost like a Christmas miracle.
"I can't wait to see everything Monday," said Dariah Jackson, a special-education teacher at Stetser Elementary School. "I know there are other school districts that need the same support we are getting, and I wish we were in a position to give."