By Julia Evelsizer, The Pantagraph; Photos by Lewis Marien
BLOOMINGTON — Nearly 3,000 students will start the school year with a boost of confidence thanks to new backpacks on their shoulders.
During the Back 2 School Alliance giveaway on Tuesday, Bloomington-Normal students received free backpacks stuffed with school supplies distributed at Grossinger Motors Arena in downtown Bloomington.
“This event helps our family a lot,” said Jermi Washington of Bloomington. “It provides us with certain supplies we may not be able to get otherwise.”
In a line that wrapped around the arena, Washington waited with his three daughters. He said the money his family saves on supplies will go toward new clothes for the girls.
Jasmine Washington lit up when she talked about her approaching first day of kindergarten at Cedar Ridge Elementary School.
“I like coloring the most,” said Jasmine.
Supplies were distributed to students in kindergarten through eighth grade at McLean County Unit 5 and Bloomington District 87 schools. Students were required to be registered for school, have up-to-date immunizations and meet federal low-income requirements for free or reduced lunches.
Items like backpacks, notebooks, markers and binders were collected in donation boxes throughout the Twin Cities.
“We had a wonderful response. People are very generous,” said event organizer Jan Meadows, noting the alliance received many donations from shoppers at Hy-Vee in Bloomington and both Walmart stores.
“To see this all come together, I feel happy and relieved. It takes a lot of volunteers,” she said.
Games, face painting and jump rope was available for families waiting outside. Inside the arena, students could meet their principals, play games and earn prizes after picking out a backpack.
“It’s great to see the students before school starts because we’re already able to start that connection,” said Jenifer McGowan, principal at Sheridan Elementary. “This event levels the playing field and gives students a sense of ownership right away.”
Jessica Phillips of Bloomington greeted McGowan with a hug while visiting the event with her two children.
“School supplies can be so expensive. It relieves a lot of stress,” said Phillips.
Parents also could browse booths to learn about local resources available for families, including financial tips, health advice and other community services. On the way out of the arena, each family received a tote stuffed with food from Eastern Illinois Foodbank.
Tabias Jones, a sixth-grader at Bloomington Junior High School, was happy to see markers in his backpack because he loves art.
“I’m excited for junior high to learn more, meet new people and get involved in new activities,” he said.
Evans Junior High principal Chris McGraw said the “backpack full of gear” can leave a big impact on students.
“Junior high can be stressful. This takes one less worry away so they don’t need to be anxious on their first day. When we see students here we say, ‘We’re excited to see you. You’re part of our family and we miss you,’” said McGraw.
James Harden, executive director of human resources and student services at Unit 5, attended the event for the first time.
“This is absolutely amazing,” he said. “It’s a beautiful mosaic of people coming together for the common cause of education and getting kids excited.”