Nearly 100 volunteers would have made Henry Ford proud at LECOM Park in Bradenton on Friday morning.
Two assembly lines of retirees, college students, high school kids and corporate volunteers were cranking out backpacks, fully stocked with pencils, pens, notebooks, highlighters, toiletries and other school supplies. By the end of the morning, 500 backpacks were ready for “Christmas in August,” an event the Kiwanis Club is holding Saturday morning at LECOM Park to provide Manatee’s homeless children with school supplies.
“This lifts some of the burden from teachers that sometimes buy supplies for their students,” said Nancy Comingore, a Bank of America vice president who was helping stuff bags Friday. “Despite a lot of wealth in our area, there is a great need.”
In addition to the backpack, children will receive dental, vision and medical screenings, and a free haircut.
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Christmas in August is specifically for homeless children in Manatee’s Project Heart program, and the services and supplies are only for children enrolled in that program. (The Palmetto Youth Center is hosting an event offering supplies and services to all children on from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.)
District Superintendent Diana Greene was on hand, helping stuff bags on the assembly line. She said child homelessness is a broader classification than just the children living outdoors or in a shelter.
“It’s not in the same realm as when you see people on the street,” Greene said.
The School District of Manatee County has roughly 1,800 students who qualify as homeless, Greene said. The Every Student Succeeds Act defines homeless students as students who do not have “fixed, regular and adequate housing.” That means students whose families live in motels, “couch surf” or live in housing with multiple other families are classified as homeless, in addition to students whose families live in tents, cars or on the street.
And while many associate homelessness as an urban problem, the vast majority of homeless children in Florida live in suburban areas. A 2016 study by the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness reported that 78 percent of homeless children in the 2013-14 school year were living in suburban areas; 14 percent of homeless children lived in rural areas or small towns; and just 7 percent lived in the state’s major cities.
Greene said the event was vital to help some of the district’s neediest children start the school year without standing out.
“It’s an opportunity for us to give these students the resources, brand new haircuts, so on the first day of school, they don’t look any different than any other student,” Greene said. “This event is priceless. Just to see the smiles on those students’ faces as they receive their backpack and many other resources for their family, it just gives them that opportunity to be successful.”