By Ryan MacDonald
Everyone can remember their first day of school.
The new clothes you picked out the night before, your favorite school supplies tucked away in your shiny backpack, your class schedule memorized.
That first day of classes brought the fresh air of possibility and new beginnings.
But for homeless children and families, the new school year doesn’t arrive with the same optimistic flare. For them, it often translates into additional stress about how to afford expensive things, like calculators and class photos, and even confusion about where to go to register for school.
So to help close this gap and fully prepare students from all backgrounds with their scholastic needs, Mary’s Place, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering homeless women, children and families to reclaim their lives, hosts a “Back to School Extravaganza” every September.
“[It’s] one stop shopping to get them ready for school,” said Katie Teplicky, an event coordinator who helps execute this annual event, which makes transitioning into the school year easy for parents who may have other things on their mind.
“Our M.O. in general is has everything in one spot, so a parent doesn’t have to go to the school district to register their kid, they don’t have to figure out where to get the gift card that’s been donated, so they can go get their backpack,” she said.
“They don’t have to beg and borrow to get all these things.”
Held the day before the official start of the school year, the “Back to School Extravaganza” provides everything a family and student may need. From backpacks and shoes to clothes and even haircuts, students are allowed to pick and choose what they want – except, maybe, for the hairdo. That’s on the adults.
“Obviously [we’re] letting the parents handle the haircutting portion because that’s pretty personal,” joked Teplicky.
This year’s event welcomed more than 300 children and families to the Doppler Building on the Amazon campus near Westlake Center where volunteers (aka “personal shoppers”) greeted each young scholar (and even some adults) with a “Back to School Passport” and bags for shopping.
Together the volunteer and student made their way through a maze of tables piled high with shoeboxes, folders, backpacks and racks of clothes. With the emphasis being on the children’s wants and needs, volunteers stepped back and gave the kids room to have fun.
“I love the focus on having the kids choose their owns styles,” said Maile Bohlmann, an Amazon employee who volunteered at this year’s event for the first time. “This one girl chose these sparkly shoes. She’s like, ‘These are the ones!’ And she was so excited.”
Parents watched from the sidelines as their children raced around and picked out new outfits, relived and grateful to not worry about the financial burden that often comes every September.
“A lot of us can’t afford that,” said Sandra Bueno, a single mother from Rainer Beach who brought her two daughters, Kaylee and Tania. “We need this every year and it’s amazing. It takes a lot of weight off our shoulders.”
Bueno has been relying on the resources provided by Mary’s Place since she arrived to Seattle in 2008. Because of this event, she knows her girls are going to be set up for the school year and excited about learning.
“I can just imagine them sleeping on their feet,” she said of their new shoes. “They can’t wait to get to school on the first day looking good.”
Beginning in June, Mary’s Place begins their annual donation drives that are based off the Seattle Public School list of student needs. They partner with over 50 companies and organizations, including Amazon, REI, Zulily, Taco Time and Comcast, to put the call out to all employees and to help raise the awareness of homeless youth.
This year, Mary’s Place is able to provide resources year round because of their overstock of supplies. So when families arrive to one of the eight shelters throughout the city, and have nothing but the clothes on their back, they be welcomed with kindness and then prepared to succeed at school, said Teplicky.
“The kids have no backpack or if they do it’s packed with their belongings from home or their brothers and sisters diapers,” Teplicky said. “We’re able to hit that supply throughout the year and give them a fresh backpack with all the school supplies, and the scientific calculator if they need that.”
Every child deserves the opportunity to be excited about their educational journey, and that excitement is what reminds the event’s volunteers and organizers that children, regardless of social or economic backgrounds, should start on the right path.
“It’s just that joy of watching the kids be excited about going back to school and the fact that it’s a fresh new beginning for them,” said Teplicky, who watched one young girl pick out a polka dot backpack with a troll on the back.
“They’re getting something they wouldn’t be getting otherwise.”