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Ain't No Stopping Us Now

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Virus or no virus, HOPE Helps made sure local kids got the school supplies they needed – and still had fun along the way

The 12th annual HOPE Helps Back to School Bash looked very, very different from the 11th, 10th, or any of the lively events that preceded it, but a global pandemic wasn’t going to stop the nonprofit organization from getting essential school supplies into the hands of kids who needed them.

The Back to School Bash has grown to become an important community milestone at the start of each school year. Without a pandemic in play, the event invites kids from kindergarten through high school to gather in a festival-like atmosphere to select items such as new backpacks, pens, pencils, glue, notebooks, hygiene items, and socks – all free of charge. Meanwhile, parents can connect with local social-services resources, if necessary. Music, entertainment, and games pump the kids up and get them inspired to head back to learning and begin a new grade.

In the era of COVID-19, though, things had to change. The in-person event on the campus of Oviedo’s First United Methodist Church was ruled out due to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) social-distancing guidelines. HOPE Helps’ #1 priority was to keep everyone safe and follow those rules, says Jackie Nitti, HOPE’s development manager. But canceling the Back to School Bash altogether was out of the question.

“There is just such a need,” says Carolyn Sawaya, the events coordinator for HOPE Helps.

Students who participate in the Bash are either referred by schools or other nonprofit organizations, or they are in the Kids of HOPE Enrichment Program, which works to alleviate hunger for kids in need while school is out.

Building a Better Bash
After considering several supply distribution scenarios for this year’s Back to School Bash, HOPE Helps opted for a car line and a drive-up system. Parents or guardians pre-registered their kids, so Bash organizers knew what to expect. Despite the new format, more than 200 children still registered for supplies, and 75 HOPE staffers and volunteers worked the drive-through line to serve them.

“We love for our clients to pick and choose the supplies they want – we love for the kids to pick everything out – but there wasn’t going to be a building with hundreds of people in it this year,” says Jackie. “Transitioning to a car pickup line was the safest choice for this event.”

But inside of those vehicles, the kids certainly still felt the support of their community rooting them on.

The Bash team was ready for the kids’ arrival with balloons, encouraging signs, and even volunteers dressed as Rock, Paper, and Scissors, to entertain the young passengers as they wound their way through the line. Volunteers passed out boxed lunches to families as they drove in. Dogs from Pawfection Therapy Dog Training were along the car route, as well, providing some cute canine diversion for all.

Overall, the number of items handed out was down from past years, but one thing was certain: Hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes were staple items in every backpack this time around.

The logistics of gathering and transporting items to the event were also more complicated due to COVID. Businesses that had previously volunteered to be drop-off points were asked to handle donated items while wearing gloves and masks, as             appropriate, and items were left to sit for a few weeks before they were packed in the backpacks.

Before the collection period ended on July 10, HOPE Helps had also predicted the need for more items like headphones for students opting to begin the new school year virtually. Fortunately, a corporate donor came through with headphones for every student.

“We just didn’t know what school would look like this year,” says Jackie.

It All Adds Up

This year’s Back to School Bash was presented by Orlando Health. Since they began in 2009, the Bash events have provided more than 3,300 children in need with over $400,000 in school supplies, vision screenings, clothing, and hygiene items, according to HOPE Helps. The pre-pandemic, 2019 event served more than 400 pre-registered children.

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