When the gates to McKechnie Field open at 8 a.m. Aug. 6, it should feel like a seamless operation, with tents for shade, a dunk tank, “barber shop,” soccer and plenty of back-to-school supplies.
Planning is well underway for the annual Christmas in August headed up by the Bradenton Kiwanis Club. The event helps 500 homeless students and families in the Manatee County School District prepare to head back into the classroom.
Dozens of community partners are involved with the program, now in its sixth year, either by providing donations and supplies or giving time and expertise. Officials estimate between $40,000 and $45,000 in supplies are given out each year, which doesn’t take into account the cost of services provided such as eye exams, dental cleanings and hair cuts.
“It’s really probably twice that,” said Larry Smith, a Kiwanis member who helps event Chairwoman Karen Carpenter, also chairwoman of the Manatee County School Board. “They really should walk out of here ready for school.”
Homeless in Manatee
The official count of homeless students in Manatee County is 1,840, said Lissette Fernandez, Project HEART manager for the Manatee County School District, with most identified children in elementary school. Fernandez said she knows the district is missing some children.
“We know we’re missing a lot of children,” she said, adding some families are ashamed of being identified as homeless or don’t really understand the definition of being homeless.
Families who qualify as homeless — and can take advantage of additional school district services — don’t necessarily have to be living on the streets. Families who live doubled up in homes, live in hotels or motels, or live in parks are also considered homeless.
“Homelessness is any situation where they don’t have a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residency,” Fernandez said.
Official district numbers have hovered right around 1,850 for the last couple of years, Fernandez said. When students enroll in Manatee schools, they’re asked about their residency and that’s often where the district is able to identify students. Sometimes, if students miss a lot of class or teachers notice a change, questioning can lead to the revelation the student is homeless.
The school district focuses on identifying, enrolling and helping homeless students succeed academically. The district partners with other organizations, such as Bradenton Kiwanis, to help students receive supplies and other materials such as food.
Fernandez said the situation will not be fully resolved until affordable housing in Manatee improves and homeless families can find stable living situations.
“We’d like more community assistance on housing,” she said. “But that can get complicated.”
‘A lot of moving parts’
On Friday at McKechnie Field, five organizers walked around the field making sure the site would be ready for the event. Figuring out where to post signs, set up tents and relocate annual areas — the room volunteers used last year to stuff backpacks was too small — were all part of the discussion.
“It’s a very large event and there’s a lot of moving parts,” said Nick Long, coordinator of McKechnie Field operations.
A grassy area by the batting cages will become a soccer field, one of the locker rooms will be a barber shop for the day and grills will be set up by the concession area to serve lunch. A costumed Santa Claus, bands, dancers and many other entertaining activities will be set up throughout the area. Vendors will set up tables, giving out free stuff and information.
Each student gets a backpack filled with school supplies and personal care kit, with brushes, toothpaste, toothbrushes and deodorant. Students also receive a $50 Bealls gift card and a $25 gift card for shoes.
Before the end of the school year, letters go to the identified homeless families about the event, and Kiwanis can accommodate up to 500 students each year. The event runs from 8 a.m. to noon, but Carpenter said sometimes families arrive at 5 a.m. — before even volunteers arrive.
Across the street at the Bill Galvano One Stop Center, student dental needs will be taken care of for free.
Smith noted this year officials should try to set up a designated crossing area and have somebody out there to make sure students aren’t running around.
“We’ll add that to the list then,” Carpenter said.
How to get involved
While secure on the volunteer front, Christmas in August chair Karen Carpenter said they’re always looking for more donations of supplies to give out to students. For more information, contact Carpenter at 941-225-3893.