School supply distribution shows Southwest Florida need still great
For nearly a quarter-century Southwest Florida families in need have benefitted from the Big Backpack Event, a distribution of free backpacks, school supplies and groceries just as classes were set to begin.
This year was no different, although the need was exacerbated by an event that happened almost a year ago — Hurricane Ian. Hours before the 10 a.m. opening vehicles lined the streets around the Fort Myers Skatium, deep into the city's near-downtown sidestreets and past City of Palms Park.
Leonardo Garcia, founder of the Multicultural Centre of Southwest Florida and co-chair of the event the organization sponsors, said in the event's 24 years he has learned a very important lesson why it is needed.
"I learned that the best thing that we can do, as a community, as a country, as a world, is to do the smart investment — that's investing in the children, that's the best and smartest investment that we can ever do," Garcia said. "And doing this is investing in the children, in the education, supporting them with education of which we allow them to become professional leaders and for the world, to make the world a better place."
Again worked as a drive-by process — the fourth year for the change wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic — the Big Backpack Event provided up to 2,500 children with new backpacks filled with pencils, pens, paper, crayons, folders and other essential back-to-school items as well as coupons and other giveaways.
The event began in 1999 on a much smaller scale — just 75 USED backpacks were handed out that first year at St. Michaels Church, Garcia remembered.
But it has grown expoentially over the years. The event has drawn upwards of thousands of adults and children and moved from the church to venues such as the old Harborside Event Center as the distribution grew — some years actually running out of backpacks.
The coupons came about as the drive-by aspect was put into place. Previous to the pandemic the event had a carnival atmosphere with children receiving free haircuts and parents offered information on educational and other services.
In the days before the event, a cadre of volunteers helped stuff backpacks and grocery bags and then, on Sunday, manned tables along the drive-by route to help stuff cars, SUV's, trucks and myriad other vehicles.
Volunteer Linda Corvison, a multi-year volunteer from Fort Myers, joined again this year with some coworkers.
Aside from children getting needed school supplies, Corvison said she, and her coworkers, also benefitted.
"My heart. You just see the kids faces every time they get a backpack when the cars pass by, oh my God, that really, really is what we do," she said. "What we do is it makes you very happy to see those kids in their car, waiting for those windows to be open and 'how many backpacks', 'what color do you like' and they're very, very excited. So it is very rewarding for us to do it."
Despite the long lines, and the wait, those chilling in their vehicles were all in good spirits and patient as the minutes ticked down to the opening.
Kiki Jones had a car full of kids laughing and chattering away as they waited. The Lehigh Acres mother said the supplies would come in handy as the school year progresses.
"Books, crayons, papers, backpacks, all the school supplies, as they go through them fast throughout the year," she said. "Like within like three months, they need new supplies."
Helping make the event possible were corporate and individual sponsors and donations with Neal Communities as presenting sponsor. Others included the City of Fort Myers, Lee County Sheriff’s Office, Lee County School District, CONRIC pr + marketing, HABA, Macaroni KID and Midwest Foods.
“Ensuring that these families have what they need to start the school year off right is what motivates us to keep doing this year after year,” Garcia added. “We don’t want to see any family struggle and go without.”
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