Ready to learn

Local students provided school supplies during supply giveaways

By Tia Lyons

Staff Writer

Just inside the front entrance of the Fairview Community Development Association building on Saturday, a team of volunteers were positioned at a series of tables, ready to assist children and their families in the 26th annual school supply giveaway.

“What grade is he in?” a volunteer asked one mother.

“Seventh,” the mother answered.

“Then you’ll need to go to that table over there,” the volunteer advised, pointing toward a table that was manned by another volunteer and overflowing with plastic bags and backpacks filled with school supplies that had been assembled for that respective grade.

The doors had opened at 8 a.m, and by 10 a.m., that scenario had been repeated more than 150 times as a steady stream of children filed in with their parents, grandparents, other relatives, guardians and, in some cases, neighbors.

The Fairview Community Development Association — in collaboration with College Avenue Church of Christ, the Salvation Army, Medical Center of South Arkansas, Gold Cross Urgent Care, and other community partners — offered free school supplies for area students and free health screenings for children who will be entering kindergarten.

Classes begin Monday for Union County public schools. The FCDA was one of several school supply giveways to be held around El Dorado and Union County in the days leading up to the first day of school.

Another annual giveaway, the 4th annual Sharion Bailey Whitlock School Supply Giveaway, was also held Saturday.

First come, first served

Wayne Gibson, a member of the FCDA and a member of the El Dorado School Board, explained that the organization is the community outreach arm of St. John Missionary Baptist Church, which is adjacent to the FCDA building on East Wilson.

Each year, school supplies are distributed until they’re gone.

Gibson said volunteers often continue to hand out supplies to those who come in after the first day of school.

“In years past, we’ve had over 1,000 come through. This year, with so many other churches and organizations doing giveaways, we didn’t know what to prepare for, so we probably have about 500 bags prepared,” he said.

“We usually have a rush between (8 and 10 a.m.). If we stay here all day people will keep coming in,” Gibson said. “We’ll have folks come in tomorrow and next week.”

Participants must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.

“We don’t require ID. We go on the honor system. If they say they need it, we’ll give it to them,” Gibson said. “We ask for the child’s name, grade and school, so we’ll know what to give them.”

Gibson and the Rev. Barry Dobson, pastor of St. John, said a school supply pack typically contains notebook paper, binders, pens, pencils, markers and personal hygiene products, including soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes.

“One year we did socks. First Baptist Church in Parkers Chapel partnered with us and brought over socks, and we gave those out,” Dobson said.

Added Gibson, “We don’t give them everything. It’s just a supplement for what they have to have and what they’re going to get.”

On the Thursday and Friday before distribution day, volunteers prepare bags by forming an assembly line and sifting through supplies per grade level.

“We started with the bags for kindergarten, and then the next grades, and it went pretty fast,” Gibson said. “We have about 35, 40 folks with us, and they’re not just church members.”

Florine George, a volunteer and member of St. John church, said she has worked with the giveaway since it began 26 years ago.

During the early years, George was a volunteer and a beneficiary.

“I had six kids in school. They’re all grown and gone, but I still do it,” she said.

George and Dobson said children come from all over Union County, and ealier Saturday morning, some children from Little Rock came in for school supplies.

“They were here (visiting) their grandparents, and their grandparents brought them in,” George said.

She and Dobson said neighbors bring in children from the community, and another local church, Zion Watch Baptist Church, had driven around community and brought in two busloads of children for school supplies Saturday morning.

Knowing firsthand how expensive it can be to equip children with the necessary tools for school, George said she is glad to be part of a program that assists other parents and guardians who face the same challenges.

“Since we’ve started, it’s grown a lot. I do it because I enjoy doing it,” she said.

Jaquese Whatley, a mother of two school age children, said she also appreciates the help.

“It helps a lot. Sometimes, it can be a struggle to get school supplies because I don’t have half the stuff they need,” Whatley said, adding that her grandmother told her about the giveaway.

Whatley also brought in her niece, who will be starting kindergarten on Monday.

“She really needed stuff, so I wanted to help her and help her mama out, too,” Whatley said.

Health screenings

Gibson said the FCDA understands that good health also factors into a child’s success in school.

As children loaded up on school supplies Saturday, those who will be entering kindergarten also had the opportunity to receive free health screenings.

Dr. Vivian Okoye, of South Arkansas Pediatric Associates, stressed the importance of physical and mental well being to start the school year off right.

Okoye said she jumped at the chance to be part of the school supply giveaway.

“I want to be involved with the kids in the community,” Okoye said. “A lot of folks don’t know that a kid needs a physical assessment, even when they seem well.”

For instance, if a child is underperforming in school, Okaye said a health check can help pinpoint a medically related issue.

“A lot of times, if a kid is not paying attention, people will say it’s (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder),” she said. “It might be that the kid is not getting enough sleep or they may have sleep apnea, and it’s not ADHD.”

Regular checkups can also help doctors assess a young patient’s social well-being — often an overlooked component of overall health care, Okoye said.

“When a kid comes into my office, and they do not know where their next meal is coming from, they can talk about it,” she said. “That kind of thing can be embarrassing to talk about, and I can direct them to the resources that they need.”

One such resource was the school supply giveaway, she said, noting that she has been sharing the information with her patients and their families.

“We’re hoping for a good turnout. We need more stuff like this in the community,” she said.

Okoye said she and other medical professionals — including Dr. Ezinne Nwude, medical director of the Medical Center of South Arkansas Hospitalist Program/Gold Cross Urgent Care and registered nurse Candia McElvain — provided developmental assessments and physical and vision exams during the school supply giveaway.

Within the first hour, they had seen about 15 children, she said, adding that the medical team had identified back problems with one child and advised the parents of another child to follow up with an eye exam.

“We give parents advice, too, because they can’t just take their kid to school and expect the teacher to raise them,” Okoye said. “Parents have to be involved. When the teacher sees that you’re invested in your child’s education, they will become invested in your child, too.”

The school supply giveaway began a year before Dobson was named pastor of St. John, and he said he is glad to have been able to help grow the FCDA program for the community.

“We call this a ministry, not an event or activity. We want to let the community know we’re here to help if they need help, if possible,” Dobson said. “It’s not about us. It’s about giving back to the community.

Tia Lyons may be contacted at 870-862-6611 or tlyons@ eldoradonews.com.

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