MOUNT VERNON — Getting ready for the first day of school was a communitywide event Thursday evening in Mount Vernon. Over 1,000 backpacks filled with back-to-school supplies and warm wishes for a great school year were distributed during the Seventh Annual Backpack Giveaway at Riverside Park.
Hundreds of school-age children stood in line to choose a brand new backpack to start the new school year off on the right foot. Event coordinator Angel Maner, a member of the Vineyard Church of Knox County, said she and her husband, Jay, began working with other volunteers to plan the event in March.
“There are over 100 volunteers here,” Angel said watching the large crowds of children enjoy the free food and games spread throughout the park. “We’ve been planning and praying for this since March and it’s a pretty amazing thing to see.”
Twelve-year-old Marcus Porter of Mount Vernon who will be starting middle school next week, chose a blue backpack while his two younger brothers, Ethan and Levi, stood in the line for younger children with their mother, Patricia.
“I got scissors and markers,” shouted 5-year-old Ethan, who is looking forward to starting kindergarten at Highland next week.
Patricia described the challenge of facing back-to-school expenses for three children on one income. “With three boys and my husband being disabled and just my income — this really helps,” she explained as the boys made plans to play some games and enjoy the free dinner provided by the volunteers.
Amanda Leeth of Mount Vernon brought her three young daughters to the giveaway to prepare for the new school year at Temple Christian Academy where her two oldest daughters, Hannah and Abbi Hines attend.
“It’s not an easy expense to come up with for back-to-school,” Leeth said of the purchase of school bags and supplies.
After receiving their backpacks, many of the eager young students looked over the crayons, pencils, paper, scissors, glue and other necessities loaded in their new school bags while they waited for a free haircut in the big white tent staffed by area hairstylists who donated their time for the event.
Many were as excited about the complementary haircut as they were about the free backpacks.
“Some of these kids have never had a professional haircut,” said Maner. “Just the look on their faces afterward is incredible.”
The joy received from watching so many grateful families clearly impacted the volunteers who had worked hard to organize the event. Local churches began collecting donations months ago, with the efforts coordinated through Vineyard.
“We do all of the contact information, collect all of the funds and we then distribute it,” Maner explained. All of the backpacks and the supplies inside are made possible through community donations. “Either people have donated the funds or the actual supplies,” Maner said.
The volunteers hope the families who receive the backpacks realize the gesture is one made with a loving spirit explained Maner. “Our hopes are to communicate God’s love that we’re not just giving away a backpack that meets a physical need,” she explained. “We want to be able to show them how God can fill them in a greater way.”
Brandy Blanchard of Centerburg made sure her 10-year-old son Christopher and 7-year-old daughter Taylor understood the generosity which made their new backpacks filled with school supplies possible.
“I really appreciate all the donations from the church for the book bags because it really helps out,” said Christopher.
“God bless everybody that’s donated,” Brandy said.
The event continues to grow each year as more people step up to ensure every child in the community starts the school year with the supplies he or she needs to begin learning.
“We started the first year with 75 backpacks and this year we’re up to a 1,000,” Maner said. At the end of the night, 1,028 children received new backpacks and 115 left with freshly cut hair.
The grassroots effort touches hundreds of families each year with simple, no strings-attached generosity.
“It’s impossible to know just how this affects people,” said Maner.