ARLINGTON — noise abounds in the Student Center of the University of Texas at Arlington. I'm setting up cameras and checking angles in the corner of the upper-level computer lounge, but even here the parades of jovial children at language camp echo off the walls and banisters. College campuses are never still, even in the summer.
Talyna approaches from the stairwell to the left and, after a brief introduction and a not-so-brief series of camera adjustments and chair nudges, we are speaking candidly about her youth, her life and her volunteer work at 6 Stones.
“When I was little, I didn't realize that we were poor,” she tells me. “We didn't have the money for school supplies; I just thought that it [support] was something everybody got… my dad will tell this story, when I was in first or second grade, where I complained about needing a new backpack. I didn't need a new backpack, but I wanted a new backpack because I'd had the same one for a couple of years.”
Thanks to a program in her home state of Oklahoma, Talyna had never lacked the essential school supplies many of her classmates simply purchased at the start of a new school year. The program, which was operated by the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, provided supplies either via collection between registration and the beginning of the school year or directly to students' desks on their first day.
“It just kind of made me feel like everyone else… Everyone had to have everything, and if you couldn't afford it, where were you going to get it?”
Our interview is interrupted for the third time in as many minutes as another group of children tramples by, banners waving a rallying cry for this particular brigade of campers. As we wait, Talyna giggling slightly at the tangible fruitlessness of my efforts to maintain uncorrupted audio, I can't help but wonder how many of these children have ever worried about lacking the same tools as their classmates.
The sheer joy, the social thrill of learning beside their peers, is contagious. Much as these students are a technical challenge for me, they are also a beautiful reminder of the reason we do what we do at Operation Back to School every year. Every child deserves to passionately explore their world, and it is because of volunteers like Talyna that we are able to equip students in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District for that journey.
“Having been on the receiving end of school supplies, I know what it can mean to the kids,” Talyna sneaks the words in as another group approaches, then continues as their footsteps and laughter fade into the distance: “6 Stones is different than what I received because mine was just a very matter-of-fact walk in, get your school supplies, walk out…6 Stones is like a community carnival.”
“The moment that they leave the event room, it's no longer about the school supplies. It's about the people.”
There are no ferris wheels during the daylong back-to-school event, and our employees will tell you that the months of volunteer work and donation collections preceding the actual event are an entirely different kind of circus. The work this community tackles for their children says more about them than my thesaurus and I could ever hope to replicate. For men and women like Talyna, however, the experience outweighs the cost.
“The moment that [the kids] leave the event room and the get to the school supply line, it's no longer about the school supplies. It's about the people.” She laughs, possibly dispelling the wave of emotions that threatened to break her voice during this last statement, then remembers one young student in particular who dreamed one day of being a firefighter, and expressed those desires to members of the fire department who were distributing supplies on site.
“The bonding between the kid and the firemen, that's something wonderful to see.”
“It's definitely more than making them feel like one of their peers.”
Despite the zealous interruptions of our young compatriots, Talyna and I wrap the interview on schedule. I pack tripods and equipment into their various bags, pausing to drink in the sound of youthful chaos as yet another pack of preteens roams behind us. It strikes me that Operation Back to School, like many other 6 Stones programs, is built not to simply meet a need but to empower a community to overcome challenges together. Because young men and women like these need more than pencils and scissors and binders and glue. They need to know that they are loved; that they are valued; that they are just as marvelously capable as anyone else their age.
As we approach another school year and brace for the myriad letters, baskets and phone calls that separate us from our own herd of ambitious-yet-satisfied pupils, I hope that you will consider standing with us today and every day until August 22nd, when students will receive their backpacks, their notebooks, and their reminder that we believe in them.
For more information on what you can do to help, visit the event page or email our Director of School-Based Initiatives, Adrianna Watson (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Thanks for reading, considering and supporting us!