At daybreak, already in line for free school supplies

Back to School Rally

Joshua West, 8, a 3rd grader at Maxwell Park International Academy, and his mother Ashaunti Redd, 41, receive registration cards, which they will they will redeem for free tennis shoes.

This may have been the last weekend before the start of the new school year, but for Oakland parent Kim McLemore, vacation was already over. Before dawn on Saturday morning, McLemore woke her two children, Tyriq, 12, and Kimarii, 9, in order to get the family downtown before the lines started to build for the 3rd annual Oakland Back to School Rally. Although the event didn’t start until 9 a.m., McClemore had been advised to arrive early in order to register for free school supplies.

“I didn’t want to take any chances,” said McClemore, 39. “It’s for their education.”

Several hundred people gathered on Saturday in Frank Ogawa Plaza, where promises of free back-to-school supplies attracted a wide range of students, from kindergarteners to college freshmen.  Like McClemore, many parents arrived hours before the official start time, children in tow, in order to ensure a good place in line for the give-away.

By 9:30 a.m., McClemore had already made fast friends with her fellow parents, many of whom, like her, were first-timers to the rally. In the 2 1/2 hours since she had arrived, the line had not yet budged. “A lot of people here have no money,” she said, as the adults near her nodded in agreement. “The little stuff counts, though. They gotta start somewhere to help the less fortunate.”

Despite their 5 a.m. wake-up call, McClemore’s son and daughter talked energetically with other children nearby, smiling and laughing. “They’re excited for new school supplies,” McClemore said. “It’s motivation. Without supplies, the kids won’t do well in school. They feel bad if they always need to ask to borrow a pencil, so they just don’t ask, and then they don’t get their work done.”

Shoe boxes

Four hundred pairs of tennis shoes, donated by Shoe Palace, await OUSD K-5 students at the 3rd annual Oakland Back to School Rally in downtown Oakland.

Young children were not the only ones to benefit from the giveaway. Maria Juarez, 19, an Oakland resident starting her first year at Chabot College in Hayward, said she was grateful for the promise of free school supplies, explaining that she needed to save money for tuition. “I’m worried about how I’m going to pay for college,” she said. “Financial aid is taking longer than I expected, so I haven’t been able to buy anything. I started classes last week, and I don’t have any books.” Juarez estimated that the supplies she hoped to receive – binders and a backpack – would cost her about $40 if she had to buy them elsewhere.

Juarez surveyed the long line ahead of her. “I don’t want to drop out,” she said,”but I won’t have a choice if I don’t get the funds.”

With K-12 schools starting classes Monday, the rally, funded by a volunteer-based organization called Oakland Natives Give Back, came as a relief to Oakland families and the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) alike, OUSD lost $122 million in financing in the latest round of state education cuts, and many parents have lost jobs due to the economic recession.

Raising money to sponsor this year’s rally was particularly challenging, said Nyeisha DeWitt, a doctoral student at the University of San Francisco, and one of the three co-founders of Oakland Natives Give Back. “We had to work a lot harder to find support from local businesses, but it feels great to do this work,” she said, adding that she has not yet finished back-to-school shopping for her own children. “This isn’t just philanthropy. This is about giving back. We are all in the same situation, balancing our own budgets, but we reach deep. This is where the community comes together for the kids.”

More than 60 volunteers from local organizations, including the Natives Give Back group and another called Imagine That!, helped register students to receive free grade-specific school supplies, which had been donated by local businesses. OUSD students in grades K-5 received tennis shoes, middle school students got locker caddies, organizational binders, shampoo, and deodorant; and high school students were given 31-day BART passes. The significant number of non-OUSD students received backpacks.  As a form of personal payment for their supplies, students were required to attend two lectures, given in and around City Hall, on health topics and grade-specific school readiness.

As in previous years, the giveaway itself did not start until 4pm. The requirements surprised a few first-time attendees, who had not expected to stay at the event all day. The schedules of events also included local speakers and bands, who performed in front of city hall.

“OUSD is facing many challenges,” said OUSD Superintendant Tony Smith, who spoke during the afternoon rally. “I appreciate the different parts of our community coming together. This is a great example of giving kids what they need.”

The Back to School rally wasn’t the only charity event for Oakland schools held on Saturday. A few hours after the rally, a slightly different crowd flocked to another fundraiser, the Uptown Block Party – a bar-hopping tour at the corner of Broadway Terrace and Grand Avenue. The goal of the event was to raise $10,000 for Crocker Highlands Elementary, Westlake Middle School, Oakland Tech High School and Laney Community College, which were chosen based on a combination of need and performance.

The event was organized by four local restaurants: Luka’s Taproom and Lounge, Picán, Ozumo, and Era. Tickets cost $20, and included a free specialty drink at each of the four businesses. All ticket proceeds went to support visual art and extended day programs, as well as to purchase supplies and materials for teachers and students. The event attracted a diverse group of patrons, including teachers and community members who didn’t have children. For many participants, it was their first trip to Uptown Oakland.

Dan Muñoz, the manager at upscale barbecue restaurant, Picán, said the decision to participate in the event was an easy one. “It wasn’t about saying, ‘let’s go make some money, although it’s nice to bring attention to Uptown,” he said. “This is about supporting local schools. Some things just get you at your core.”

“It’s was a no-brainer,” reiterated Maria Alderete, owner of Luka’s Taproom and Lounge. Although she does not have any children, she said she still felt a connection to Oakland schools, and, after hearing about their tough financial situation, pitched the idea of the fundraiser to the other three businesses. “These events bring people out, and it showcases the community,” she said, smiling. “It’s a win-win for Oakland.”

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