In early spring, 2009, several
community leaders began meeting to organize a community event designed to
celebrate the start of school. The original idea was to entertain a
hundred or so people with Gospel Hip-Hop music. Fortunately, the people
involved had close connections to schools and to the needs of children from
Our idea for a concert rapidly
blossomed into plans for an event that would prepare children for the start of
school. Beginning in May 2009, the Steering Committee met every week. We
identified what the children needed and then divided up into working groups.
Each group was responsible for
either obtaining the resources for a category of needs (school supplies,
clothes, etc.) or a program area (communication, planning, marketing, etc.) The
members of the Steering Committee contacted businesses, donors, and community
organizations. With unemployment in the city of Elkhart running at 18%,
we didn’t know what to expect.
At first, we were pleasantly
surprised by positive responses. Soon, however, we were astounded by the
generosity of businesses, individuals, and organizations. As money,
supplies, and collaborations grew, so did our sense of the number of children
we could help and the scope of the services we could provide.
One significant expansion was the
addition of a health fair. We cultivated the cooperation of the Elkhart
Minority Health Coalition and Elkhart’s Heart City Health Center (a federally
qualified community health center). Heart City not only offered medical
personnel to provide health screenings and physicals, they offered cash to
Our Steering Committee (all
volunteers) grew to include a representative from Elkhart Community Schools,
the director of Church Community Services (food bank and
social service agency), the director of the Minority Health Coalition, the
Latino outreach coordinator from Elkhart General Hospital, and the manager of
Fusion Radio (who took responsibility for entertainment and publicity. Elkhart
Back-2-School partnered with more than 100 organizations including 25 churches,
10 service clubs, 15 corporations, and 50 not-for-profits.
On the day of the celebration, 230
volunteers helped. The volunteers came from service groups, neighborhood
groups, businesses, churches, and schools. Another challenge was to notify the
parents of children who most needed help getting ready for school.
Through our partnership with the
Elkhart Community School District, we mailed notices to all of the 2,300 Title
I families (who qualified for free and reduced lunches). Title I income
guidelines are roughly equivalent to 180% of the Federal Poverty Line. As we
neared the day of the celebration, we had the sense that the energy and
momentum of our project was less like a snowball rolling downhill and more like
an avalanche. Generosity blossomed. Gifts multiplied.
On the day of the celebration,
families began lining up three hours before starting time. By
mid-morning, the line of families eager to participate wound around 4 blocks of
the perimeter of the Roosevelt Neighborhood Center. Fortunately, the line
moved rapidly. Music and food helped generate good feelings.
Churches (The Fellowship Community Outreach) held a healthy soul food cook-off
and by the end of the day, we savored the satisfaction of having served 5,500
The success of the 2009 event
persuaded us that we should continue our efforts the following year. The board continued to meet, and made
preparations for an even larger event in 2010.
The Second Back-2-School Unity Festival, in August 2010, drew in more
volunteers, more corporate sponsors and more materials for needy families than
the previous year. One notable addition
in 2010 was our partnership with Samaritan’s Feet,
an internationally-known charity which supplies shoes for children in
need. Through this partnership, over
1,300 children at our event received brand-new shoes to prepare them for the
new school year.
Another addition to Back-2-School in
2010 was the Back-2-School 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament. This event was the idea of some local
residents, who suggested we hold a basketball tournament in the days running up
to the big Unity Festival, as a fund-raiser and awareness-raising event. Several local people stepped up to help
organize the tournament, and it provided a great evening of community-building
fun for all ages. For a city in northern
Indiana, there is nothing like basketball to bring folks together.
Looking to the future, Back-2-School
Elkhart continues its singular focus on preparing the children and families of
our community for each new school year.
As long as there are real financial needs, we hope to be able to help
provide the resources needed to motivate every student to be ready to learn.