EULESS- There’s a certain aesthetic to the end of summer. The beige glow of fluorescent lights bouncing off smooth linoleum floors and the scent of well-scrubbed cinderblock and glass left sterile for months, the dull thrum of children and families chattering as they wait in line to register for classes, are synonymous with the gradual decrescendo of freedom that comes as the days grow shorter. Anticipation and fear swirl in the stomachs of returning students as they step into new wings of familiar campuses. For many of the students milling about in the cafeteria at Euless Junior High, however, the school itself is new.
Whether they’ve been displaced by a change of address or deposited in their new climate at the beginning of seventh grade, these children will spend the first weeks of the academic year acclimating to a foreign environment. A select portion — those who used to cross over highway 183 on the pedestrian bridge torn down during the break — will return to find their school just a little different, even if they were familiar with it before the last bell rang in May. All of these students, as much as the elementary-aged kids who poured through the halls of Campus West during Operation Back to School (OB2S) on August 13, deserve the chance to put their best foot forward.
Every August, 6 Stones organizes a school supply drive to help equip the 54% of students in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District (HEB ISD) with everything they’ll need to succeed. New backpacks and boxes of paper and pencils line the hallways of our warehouse, waiting to be dispersed across thousands of students whose families struggle just to keep the lights on and the refrigerator stocked. This year, in the course of one week, supplies went out to nearly 6,000 students. Many of their faces are familiar: anyone who knows 6 Stones has seen pictures and video of elementary students prancing about the social service fair hosted on site here in Bedford. But more than half of the students we served this year will never appear in those colorful images.
They Just Want To Be Normal
Leadership at HEB ISD asked 6 Stones to serve an additional 2,000 students in 2016, expanding Operation Back 2 School to assist 6,000 individuals and covering nearly half of the need in the district. That meant more backpacks, longer hours, and a tougher financial hill to climb. It also meant more students served, many of them children who would receive their provisions anonymously on-site at one of seven secondary education campuses in the district: five junior highs and two high schools. The faces of those 3,000 students won’t show up anywhere on our site, but their mystique doesn’t make them any less important. If anything, their blank-slate approach to life is an essential part of their unique struggle to discover themselves.
“[At that age], they’re trying on so many different identities and figuring out if they’re going to care about school or not. Some of those things, like the supplies, help them to feel like they fit in,” said Harwood Junior High counselor Stacey Force. “If they don’t have those, if that push is not as great at the junior high and high school levels as the others, the students can start to pull away from school and fall back from academics when they really need to be putting in even more effort. Early childhood education, of course, is important, but I feel like this is the time — especially in junior high — where it’s make or break.”
Force’s testimony was reinforced by counselors, teachers, social workers, and parents across secondary schools from Bedford to Euless. The educational system is meant to shape children’s habits and develop their abilities at every level, but secondary students find themselves at an extreme point in the process. For the first time, their educational career is placed solidly in their hands. They assume responsibility for their success, even as they are asked to navigate the social minefield of popularity and extracurricular activities. Before most of these students can drive a car, they’ll be faced with identity-shaping moments and decisions that can lay a foundation — be it good or bad — for years to come. It’s important that they come prepared.
“It’s tremendously helpful,” said Tara Ryan, a social worker with Communities in Schools, when asked why school supplies are so important for these students. “It gives every kid stuff to take on the first day, and that’s kind of big for some of them. You don’t want to be the kid who shows up with nothing. Nobody does. Everybody wants to be normal and fit in. In junior high, you want to look and feel and be like everybody else.”
You won’t see the same joy and enthusiasm on a junior high student picking up her box of school supplies as you will on a kindergartener spinning the prize wheel at his first OB2S. They’re more stoic, reserved about their fate as they look ahead to another year of burgeoning social drama and increasingly difficult courses. Force says that they may not register the importance of their supplies, but that they would certainly notice if they didn’t have what they needed for class. Last year, one of her students spent a stretch of the semester failing a class simply because he couldn’t afford to bring in a box of Kleenex, for which class credit was awarded, and was too ashamed to admit his financial shortcomings to his teacher. In those instances, you’d rather a child not notice.
For most of these families, there’s little time or money to purchase supplies. It’s not a recurring expense and so it isn’t budgeted, and between the two or even three jobs a parent must work to keep the house in order, spare time for a trip to the store is difficult to find. Many families in this area also lack reliable transportation. Having supplies delivered directly at registration, an event they absolutely must attend, means more to them than a shopping spree ever could.
“It was important to us when my husband was going through his cancer. We went from being OK to not being able to provide or care for our kids the way we needed to,” said Tina, a mother who depended not only on OB2S, but on the New Hope Center during her family’s lean season. “6 Stones helped us with counseling. They prayed for us. They helped us out with food and clothing. It was amazing. I cried… It was nice to know that somebody cared.”
Tina’s oldest child will attend Central Junior High this year, the second school year in which the family has needed a little boost. They first attended OB2S in 2015, seeking supplies for a third grader whose success that year Tina credits to the help she received. According to her, preparation is the key to a successful year, and starting off on the right foot — with a full backpack — gave her students everything they needed. From the supplies themselves to the atmosphere of love and excitement that accompanied them, the event was unforgettable.
“We had a lot of fun!” she said. “They had so much fun stuff there for the family that even the other kids got little trinkets and things. It was nice. It was nice to smile at a time when you couldn’t smile.”
At all levels, from first grade through senior year, students need to feel loved and supported. Operation Back 2 School isn’t about handing out school supplies; it’s about giving students a chance to control their own future. When you’re empowering a generation, it’s important to send a message along with material provision. Secondary students have their needs quietly met with loving confidence and can arrive for school ready to learn without fear of standing out among their peers. For them, the need is subtle and the response must be equally reserved. But for their younger counterparts, only a party will do.
Meeting Needs, Causing Smiles
If you ask a bystander to name one thing that stands out about Operation Back 2 School, you’ll hear about a smile nine times out of ten. Whether it belongs to a single mother grateful for the selfless love of volunteers or a child giddily strapping on a new backpack, every smile at OB2S speaks to the heart of the event. This is a community coming together to lift up those who are struggling, and to do so with all the enthusiasm of a carnival. That sticks with people.
“Where we came from, it’s different. Everything is on the parents to do. Sometimes, you’re missing stuff. Sometimes, you don’t know what you need. Sometimes you cannot put a plan [in place] for your kid,” said Wael, a father and former US Army Interpreter whose family moved from Iraq to America on a special immigration visa last year. “People need everyone here. For people in this community, especially in HEB, it’s a big family. It’s literally a big family. If everywhere was like this community, we would definitely live in peace… It’s a blessing for me and my family to be a part of this.”
Families like Wael’s pile into Campus West on the day of Operation Back 2 School. Refugees from across the globe, single parents, grandparents entrusted with their children’s children, transplants from other states, and mentors all stand in line with their young charges, waiting for the chance to choose a backpack and fill it with supplies. This seemingly insignificant gift, an expense so minuscule that many families don’t even budget for it, makes a huge difference for them.
“With so many things that families have to worry about, the school supply cost not having to be a worry is just a huge weight off your shoulders, not having to worry about that with everything else that you have to worry about with Back to School and getting your kids ready to go,” one mother said, her arms filled with school supplies and clothing support from the New Hope Center, which distributed overstocked event t-shirts and a limited supply of jeans on the day of the fair.
The festival itself, designed to lift spirits and provide fun on top of support, is meant to be a first step toward normalcy. The most important phase of OB2S is the time students spend in transition from a table full of backpacks to a table full of boxed-up school supplies. Spanning the width of the massive room between those stations, 52 agencies and service providers stand ready to meet families on their journey. Some hand out books and candy, others give children the chance to interact with local firefighters, and still more connect parents to resources like savings plans and food stamp applications. 6 Stones invites each of these vendors with the knowledge that our services can only take children so far.
“I think that it’s hard to anticipate all of the needs that different people have, and sometimes they don’t know that they need something until they come here. They don’t even know that there’s a service out there for them,” said one woman, who had been tasked with escorting her grandchildren through the fair. She was glad to have such an organized space in which to interact with social service agencies and businesses who could respond to her specific needs. And she wasn’t alone.
“It’s a great resource so that parents can know what’s in the area. Especially for people like me. I just moved from Mississippi and I really don’t know a lot about HEB,” another woman said, her partner nodding his agreement as she continued, “I learned a lot about a lot of different places in the area that I didn’t know about before. It’s really good. I can help other people and link them to resources in the community.”
“Our children are going back to school, so we need to know what’s going on, what they are going to face, what resources they have,” another father told 6 Stones. “This event is so important [because] parents can get familiar with everything. The organization, the school, everything.”
Children aren’t the only ones who need help getting ready for school. Education is a family affair, one that affects and is affected by the entire community. If we’re going to succeed in preparing the next generation for success, we have to work together. Too often, children are left in the capable-but-overworked hands of their teachers and principals, given access only to a small portion of the resources they need. No one person or organization can change the thousands of lives imperiled by poverty every year in HEB. But we can impact more children by working together than we ever could on our own. River Trails Elementary Principal Tammy Daggs says that 6 Stones is essential for the district simply because we facilitate unity.
“Our teachers purchase a lot of things out of their own money, so Operation Back 2 School helps our district tremendously by providing our students, families, and teachers with what our students need to be successful in school,” Daggs said. “I think our partnership with 6 Stones is the most important partnership we have in the district… I think it is awesome that we have 6 Stones to coordinate our faith-based organizations and our social service agencies into one location for all of the students in our district so that we can work as partners to get our students what they need.”
What happens at OB2S goes beyond 6 Stones out of necessity. Our role is to set up the starting line and invite this community to line up and run toward the future together. The finish line was a little further away this year than it has ever been before, and it took us longer to cross it than it usually does. For the first time in the history of the event, not every student had been adopted by the time the event kicked off or even by the time the doors closed. But we — 6 Stones, HEB ISD, and this community — stepped out in faith and provided for each of those families, anyway. Some 5,800 students have received their supplies, and what has not yet been claimed is being distributed to other nonprofit partners in the area.