Laura Clifton called Saturday’s Back to School Fest a godsend.
Her family is among the hundreds still struggling to get back on its feet nearly a year after Hurricane Harvey.
“We’re playing catch-up at this point,” Clifton said. “I’m self-employed tech support and, after Harvey, my business went down to nothing. Harvey affected my clientele. People weren’t calling.”
Families stood in line before the doors of the George R. Brown Convention Center opened Saturday morning for the Mayor’s Back to School Fest, an annual event during which at-need families with elementary-school children are provided free school supplies and medical services for the upcoming school year.
The festival is in its eighth year, but Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said this year’s event may be the most significant.
“For these particular families coming from communities that were heavily hit by Harvey, still coping, still waiting for the federal dollars to reach them, this is very, very important,” he said.
Harvey compounded challenges the Cliftons already face as parents of a child with autism. Their son is entering fifth grade at River Oaks Elementary School in Houston ISD.
“He has Asperger’s, so we have a lot of extra challenges already,” Clifton said. “We’re making it work, but this event really does help tremendously.”
Sandra Ely’s son Alex also has autism. Costs associated with caring for him don’t leave much left for other expenditures, such as school supplies. In addition, the Back to School event fills a social need, Ely said.
“I don’t have very much money, so this helps a little bit, but it also gets him out to be around other people,” she said.
It only took seconds for Alex to excitedly strap on his new backpack after finally getting it in his hands.
Families received backpacks, supplies, immunizations, eye exams, dental exams and other services that could add up to hundreds of dollars, organizers said.
Turner estimated that the event attracts 25,000 children and results in a $250,0000-plus investment in Houston area youth, funded by partnerships between the city and various sponsors.
“We want our children to feel supported so they can establish and fulfill their dreams,” Turner said. “A good education is key to reach that goal and achieve their success.”
Incoming second-grader Diego Hernandez is eager to start the school year at KIPP Explore Academy.
“I really want to go there,” Hernandez said. “I love to read.”
Things are looking up for his family, who lost all its belongings in Harvey, said parent Maria Nevarez. The resulting financial struggle played a role in her decision to attend this year’s event.
“It’s really helping us,” she said.
This was the second year Alika Prado has come with her son, who is entering third grade at Hartsfield Elementary.
As a disabled veteran, Prado explained, money is tight.
“I have a set income every month and by the time I get done paying bills and rent and all that, I really don’t have much of anything left,” Prado said. “An event like this is right up my alley because I can still get him the school supplies he needs without spending much money.”
A few feet away from the backpack booth, Rabbi Amy Weiss and a group of volunteers were busy providing a less-obvious, but equally important resource. Weiss founded the nonprofit Undies for Everyone, an organization that gives underwear to children in need.
Undies for Everyone provided over 2 million pairs after Hurricane Harvey, and expected to distribute 17,000 pairs during the Back to School event.
“It’s more important than ever because more people are in need in general,” Weiss said. “People who had last year don’t have this year. Underwear is essential for dignity and self-esteem.”