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Filled book bags line the hallway walls and occupy available space in the reception area at Brunswick Family Assistance in Shallotte. A constant stream of parents enters the office to retrieve the bags—a total of 288—designated for their children and leave appreciative of the windfall. A few days before, 100 bags were distributed in Leland, meaning that community members donated 388 book bags in all.

“It would be nice to have more space for the book bags, a place to store and distribute them,” says Stephanie Bowen, executive director of BFA, as she sidesteps a few bulging bags to avoid any mishap. She says she doesn’t want to change anything else about the Christmas in July book bag program, though. “Now we have it running like a well-oiled machine,” she says, her enthusiasm as palpable as the eager children receiving the bags.

No one remembers exactly when the program began, but Linda Turner, manager of administration at BFA, says it’s been in effect since about the turn of the 21st century. To qualify, a family of four must meet the national guidelines, which is an income of $24,000 or below.

The difference between BFA’s program and others offered is that each bag contains not just school supplies but a brand new outfit and a new pair of shoes for the child to wear on the first day of school.

“It puts [the children] on an even playing field,” Bowen says. “They feel confident going to school.”

The children’s smiles and joy at getting the gift confirm Bowen’s faith in the program. She remembers one child telling her it was the first time he ever had a new pair of shoes.

“He was crying he was so happy,” she says. “I never saw a child react that way. It was a beautiful moment. It made my day.” Another time a child asked, “Is that for me? Is that my book bag?”

When she assured him it was, his beaming smile convinced her the program was valuable. “That [smile] makes the program successful,” she says.

This year many sponsors participated in the program. This included housing communities, churches, service organizations, and individuals. “We’re successfully getting the word out because of the increase in the number [of applicants].”

Bowen came to BFA in August 2015 as program director. She accepted the position of executive director in September 2016.

“I wanted to be the face that greeted people,” she says. “I love the agency, the work we do, and the mission. I have the passion for it. I felt this was my destiny.”

Bowen grew up in Leland and remembers her mom, Kim Perdue, going to food pantries even though she drove a bus in Brunswick County Schools and cleaned houses. Bowen attended Brunswick County Schools, attended Cape Fear Community College and received her bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

“I wanted [to study] something that would enable me to give back. Social work was a good fit.”

Her husband, David, is a diesel engine mechanic in Wilmington, and the couple has two daughters, Carly, 7, and Kaylee, 3. Her mom has a babysitting business now, which includes her granddaughters.

“I always knew I wanted to give back,” Bowen says. “I want to be an agent of change.”

She is grateful for the support she gets from the community. “We could never do this without the sponsors and volunteers,” she says. “I appreciate them so much.”

It’s obvious she has a passion for helping people. “I can empathize with the clients,” she says.

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