Seven hundred people attended the fifth annual back-to-school event and barbecue hosted by What Now America at deFremery Recreation Center in West Oakland on Saturday.
Pop music played in the background as kids ran around in the yard, taking turns getting their faces painted while families enjoyed free hamburgers and hot dogs. The line to register to receive free backpacks and groceries started forming well before the scheduled start of the program at noon. Almost 50 What Now America volunteers inside the recreation center mingled with the crowd and helped pack Trader Joe’s bags with fruits and vegetables to be given away.
What Now America, which hosted the event, is a volunteer-run youth organization in West Oakland that offers a five-hour educational program every Saturday for Oakland kids who are in grades K-12. What Now America was co-founded as a youth resource center by Milad Yazdanpanah, a business solutions manager for Blackbaud, a software supplier for non-profit organizations.
The first back to school event in 2008 was a way for the What Now America directors to get to know the community and find out what was needed the most in Oakland. After the first event, they decided that the focus of the organization needed to be academics and health. “We went to local hot spots and surveyed about 300 people. We asked them what services should be offered in Oakland,” Yazdanpanah said. “Groceries were at the top of the list.”
Currently, there are no major chain supermarkets in West Oakland. The Mandela Foods Cooperative, established in 2009, is the only large grocery store and nutrition education center in West Oakland. There are corner stores where West Oakland residents can buy basic foods, and there are, according to Yazdanpanah, too many liquor stores.
“Many people have to get food from the dollar store,” he said.
At Saturday’s event, with $2,500 worth of donations collected from individuals and community members, Yazdanpanah was able to distribute 400 grocery bags containing 15,000 pounds of groceries and almost 400 backpacks filled with school supplies, including notebooks, folders, pens and pencils. He said almost 700 people from the community attended the event — so many that not every child was able to get a backpack. The ones who didn’t get backpacks were given reusable cloth bags filled with school supplies. Raffle items, like gift cards to Target, local grocery stores and restaurants, were also given away.
More importantly, he said, he and the 45 other volunteers, many from Convergence Church and Saint Mary’s College, were able to tell people about What Now America’s educational program, which is held every Saturday from 12 to 5 p.m. at deFremery Recreation Center. The program consists of a science, language, art or math lesson each week, along with physical activity and tutoring circles. The kids are given a free lunch and groceries are distributed at the end of the day, which serves as incentive for parents to send their kids to the program each week.
Aaronisha Austin, 22, is a youth intern for the program. She celebrated the fifth anniversary of her participation in What Now America on Saturday by helping fill grocery bags with food, directing the kitchen volunteers and helping keep an eye on the kids in attendance. As an intern, she helps cook food for the kids who attend every Saturday, thinks of program ideas and sometimes runs the Saturday programs.
Austin recalled that when she joined the group at age 17, then as a student participant, that week’s activity was indoor rock climbing. “I was really, really afraid of going all the way to the top,” she said. “But I made it eventually and I wasn’t that scared anymore.”
It has since been a tough five years for her, she said. Her parents died three years ago and she has been struggling to save money for nursing school and help support other members of her large family. But she said she is blessed. “Seeing the kids get food and school supplies is like a high for me,” Austin said. “I wouldn’t leave this for the world.”
T’juan Spears, another former program participant who was helping Austin prepare food in the center’s kitchen, said that the alternative to attending the Saturday programs was not very appealing. “If I didn’t come here, I’d just be doing nothing at a friend’s house,” said Spears, a 16-year-old student at Envision Academy of Arts and Technology in Oakland. “My mom doesn’t allow me to just hang out on the street, so this is better.”
Spears said he wants to pursue arts, graphic design or cooking after high school. He helps out at What Now America by cooking for the kids on Saturdays. “I help out, but I get to learn, too,” he said. “We’re learning cooking here and after we finish, we get a certificate.”
Saturday’s program ended with a lively raffle after which people began to pick up their backpacks and groceries in numbered order, following the directions of the volunteers. Yazdanpanah retreated to the kitchen to start cleaning up.
He said he plans to keep the program and annual back to school event going strong in the future. “I would love it if everyone could get a backpack, and I’d love it if I could give away tablets [computers] at some point in the future,” he said. “But mostly, we want to stay a local presence and keep the kids coming on Saturdays.”