Before my daughter was born, I was an elementary school teacher for four years. I experienced what it was like to teach in both inner-city and suburban schools. In each school I’ve taught, I’ve witnessed firsthand the effects poverty can have on a child’s ability to learn.

I’ve had kids in my classroom who came to school with empty bellies, whose breakfast and lunch at school were the only meals they could count on with certainty. I’ve had kids show up at my door on the first day of school with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing.

When a family struggles to put enough food on the table every night, when a single parent might be working two or three jobs to try and support their family on their own, something as seemingly simple as buying school supplies can be difficult.

That’s where Blessing of the Backpacks comes in. For the past two years, Colonial Hills United Methodist Church has put on the event to try to fulfill one small need in our community by handing out free backpacks stocked with school supplies for underprivileged families.

“We are hoping to (provide) children with much-needed supplies that will give them a head start (in school),” said church member and leader of Colonial Hills’ Outreach Committee Craig Bell.

This year’s event will take place on Saturday, Aug. 6 from 8:30-10:30 a.m. in the front parking lot of the church, located at 5247 Vance Jackson Rd., just outside Loop 410. Participating kids are encouraged to bring their backpacks, gym bags, instrument cases or whatever else they may carry with them to school and take part in a blessing given by Colonial Hill’s pastor Diana Phillips.

There also will be breakfast tacos served and a bounce house for the kids to play in.

As summer comes to a close, kids and teachers are gearing up for the start of a new school year, and many families are out shopping for new backpacks and lunch boxes, boxes of perfectly sharpened crayons, and folders and spiral notebooks. I remember the excitement that shopping for new supplies always brought me as a kid. Freshly sharpened pencils and crisp, clean notebooks represented new possibilities for the start of a new school year.

But for many families in our San Antonio community, paying for school supplies, as well as the hand sanitizer, tissues, and cleaning wipes many schools now ask for, is a challenge. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 31% of children in San Antonio were living in poverty in 2014 and the number of kids living in extreme poverty, which is defined as a family income less than 50% of the federal poverty level, was 12%.

The Blessing of the Backpacks, which entails more than just handing out free backpacks, will help those families struggling with poverty or limited resources. Attendees will have the opportunity to visit with community partners such as the San Antonio Food Bank, CommuniCare, the American Heart Association, Devlyn Optical, San Antonio Christian Dental Association, Huebner Family Pharmacy, and Cute Smiles 4 Kids. These partners will share information with parents about resources and services they can take advantage of so that their kids can focus more on learning.

As a teacher, I spent my own money each year trying to stock my classroom with enough pencils, paper, and those lovely smelling Expo markers to make sure my kids had what they needed to learn. I can’t imagine what it would feel like as a small child to be the only kid in class without a new box of crayons. And I know I’m not the only teacher who has used money out of her own pocket to fill in the gaps for my kids.

The Blessing of the Backpacks also helps to fill that gap.

“We want to help (the students) realize their community is behind them, supporting them in their pursuit of education,” Bell said. “We are hoping they see God in action through their neighborhood church sharing resources.”

The Blessing of the Backpacks is open to the entire community as it has truly been a community effort to put it on. Money for the event was raised through The Big Give SA, which included prize money donated by State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123), who will be there Saturday morning along with Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) and Councilman Joe Krier (D9).

We hope the whole community will come out and join in the fun and excitement of this back-to-school season.

Top image: Children walk through an after school play area outside Stewart Elementary School.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Niki Burnam

Niki Burnam is a former elementary educator and a mom. She is currently using her passion for teaching by working with teachers in training at Trinity University.