Amazon Allocates $1 Million to Assist Families in Need Across Arlington and Alexandria

Ryan Cole

On October 7, Amazon announced that it would be allocating $1 million towards the Right Now Needs Fund, a fund set up by the tech behemoth to assist both Arlington Public Schools (APS) and Alexandria Public Schools (ACPS) in “meeting the basic needs of school children and helping to eliminate barriers to learning,” according to Amazon’s website. This donation came on the heels of Amazon’s recent gift of $75,000 to provide APS students with headphones, as well as its donation of nearly 800 MiFi hotspots to students in need of a remote Internet connection.

“The start of this school year has been difficult for many families across our new home of Northern Virginia, and we are determined to provide support to the students who need it most,” Amazon Senior Vice President Jay Carney said in a statement on Amazon’s blog.

The $1 million will be divided evenly between APS and ACPS and will be distributed in the form of redeemable codes for up to $100 on Amazon’s website. Communities in Schools (CIS) NOVA, a partner with APS, will oversee the distribution of these codes, and work in tandem with APS’ social workers to identify which families are in the most pressing need of assistance. Families who receive codes will be able to spend them on various items that their student(s) may need to succeed in a virtual learning environment. Families with multiple students will receive multiple codes.

“They have a landing page on Amazon that is in three general buckets. Some of it is food; some of it is technology and some of it is just your basic school supplies…. The whole idea of this is recognizing that some students don’t have the materials that they need to access their education,” Executive Director of Communities in Schools NOVA Patrick Brennan said.

“With this partnership, it’s really about choice. And, oftentimes, when we have families in need or students in need, there is limited [choice],” APS Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer Arron Gregory said.

The initial recipients of these codes will be families in schools at which CIS currently has a representative called a “site coordinator” — Barcroft Elementary, Gunston Middle School, Wakefield High School and Arlington Community High School. 

Each school will assemble a “Right Now Needs Team” consisting of the CIS coordinator, school social workers and others in the school whom the social workers deem knowledgable about the needs of the community. This team will decide which students are eligible to receive a code. According to Brennan, this process is already in its early stages.

“The idea is that this will be sort of a rolling, weekly request. [The teams will say:] ‘we need fifty codes this week at Barcroft Elementary School.’ And then the site coordinator, the social worker and that team will then be engaging the families to redeem those codes,” Brennan said.

After the kinks are worked out in the schools housing a CIS representative, other schools will begin to receive codes.

“By learning [about this process] in the CIS schools, we will be able to go to the other schools and say ‘look, we know that, roughly, it’s gonna [take] about 30 minutes [to help] a family to redeem these. So, when you put together your local team to be able to identify and engage families, know that … it’s 30 minutes [per] code.’ We can ultimately inform the other schools how best to organize themselves based on what we’ve learned,” Brennan said.

The flexibility that this initiative will provide to its beneficiaries is what differentiates it from a typical monetary donation. Not only will families be able to shop for a multitude of products, but they will also possess the option of having their purchases delivered to their homes.

“We know that a lot of our families that are struggling, they are struggling with a lot of things, including going to the places where resources traditionally are…. Having this possibly delivered to their home is a really big positive, and also having individual choice so that families can identify what is the most pressing need for them in the context of all the things that they have going on,” Supervisor of School Psychology and Social Work Wendy Carria said.

Carria also stresses the importance of developing relationships with these families to assist in their understanding of the code-redemption process.

“Some barriers can really only be broken by relationships. Sometimes it’s not sufficient to make something available or to say something exists for you over there. Some things require that relationship to be really successful,” Carria said.

According to Brennan, the majority of this process will not be delegating recipients; it will be encouraging the beneficiaries to make use of this resource.

“Some families are going to be able to take the code and already be digitally literate enough to be able to do their own redemption. They might have their own Amazon account. They might have a friend who knows how to use Amazon. And then you have some people who don’t even have an email address and would need the help of a site coordinator or a social worker to walk them through the steps to redeem that code,” Brennan said.

This undertaking presents other challenges as well.

“Then there’s also where you would send it. Do you send it to their school? Do you send it to their home? The actual redemption and then retrieving and securing [the code], [involves] a lot of relational pieces [that] for some families will be more intense than others,” Brennan said.

Despite these obstacles, APS and CIS remain committed to assisting as many families as they can, and to do so in a manner that is understanding of the potential barriers that these families may encounter in redeeming their codes. 

“The social workers have been a part of thinking about how to make this a very accessible and respectful process and to honor our families in a very successful way,” Carria said.

As with any charitable gift from a large corporation, speculation over the earnestness of Amazon’s motivations will persist. But Gregory says that this gift laid the foundation for what could be a blossoming relationship between APS and the corporate giant.

“[APS students] are possibly future Amazon engineers or future Amazon employees. So, [Amazon’s] corporate-social responsibility is helping us to create the environment that we need to be able to educate [students] so that they have the skill sets to be able to be members of Amazon and [of] the workforce,” Gregory said.