Westport's Department of Human Services is seeking donations for the annual Back to School Program, which provides the children of low-income families with new backpacks, school supplies and Payless Shoe Store gift cards.

According to Barbara Butler, the town's director of human services, the Back to School Program -- in its 15th year, will run from will run from July 27 through Aug. 4 -- helps to "level the playing field" for less-fortunate children.

"Westport is a pretty affluent community, so it's difficult for some families to be here given the resources they have, and it's hard for children to understand that," said Butler. "But Westporters are very generous, so there's tremendous opportunity for families who otherwise couldn't afford to do so to get new supplies, new backpacks, new shoes and a new outfit for the first day of school."

The program, she added, "lets the kids feel like everybody else."

DHS has a client base of 175 families who, once they prove that they meet income-eligibility levels, will be invited to Toquet Hall in late July where all of the donations will be set up for them to select a backpack "and all the fillings" for their children, according to Patty Haberstroh, the DHS family program coordinator.

According to a DHS press release, the program distributed school supplies to 216 children last year, an increase of 17 percent over the year before.

Haberstroh, who has been involved with the program since 2001, said says she expects that number to rise because of the economic recession.

"That number is definitely going to go up this year," said Haberstroh. "Our department has been busy with families coming in who never dreamed they would need this assistance." Butler says that most of the DHS programs, such as the energy-assistance program in the winter, have seen an increase.

"I think a lot of the increase in the number of people seeking help has plateaued, but I expect there will be some increase in requests" this summer, said Butler.

Donations can be made by check, which would allow Haberstroh to purchase whatever supplies are most neeeded; tax-deductible monetary donations should be made payable to Families in Need Fund (memo: backpacks) and mailed to Westport Department of Human Services, 110 Myrtle Ave., Westport, CT 06880.

Donations of new school supplies, including backpacks, also may be dropped off Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in Room 200 at Westport Town Hall.

DHS will accept donations through Aug. 15, but Haberstroh emphasized, "the sooner, the better."

"Anyone who can give even just a couple of packages of markers, I would really appreciate the help," she said.

Families who think they may be income-eligible for the Back to School Program should call Haberstroh at 341-1069. Residents with questions regarding the program can contact Margaret Pinheiro at 341-1050 or via e-mail at humansrv@westportct.gov.