Text by Dr. Mick Sandoval, Bellaire Elementary Principal
The morning of my first Operation Back 2 School (OB2S) made me feel both excited and anxious. As I drove to the event, I couldn’t help but think that I was going to meet some of my students for the first time. I wanted to connect with them, to develop a good first impression, but I also knew that I was about to begin a journey of listening; of creating a culture for the students to be successful. I had already met some of the teachers and district staff, but this morning, it was time to meet my most important customers: the kids.
I brought my own children with me so that they could observe the event. I wanted them to know what OB2S was, and to see how they, too, could serve others, just as volunteers from the community were serving my new students. I pulled into the parking lot and was amazed by the volume of cars; so many people were here for my kids! I had yet to park my car, but I was already touched. I remember telling my kids that this was going to be awesome.
It had been only two months since I was named Principal at Bellaire Elementary. It was a new situation, but not altogether new. I had been a principal for eight years already, seven of them at a high poverty campus. From prior experience, I knew that one of my first duties was to get to know the community. I took some time in my first weeks as principal to visit our business adopters so I could introduce myself, to let them put a face to a name. At each visit, I was told how much they loved Bellaire, and that, as adopters, they were ready to step up when needed.
During that journey, I was lucky to meet Scott Shepard, the Executive Director of 6 Stones. As he explained his mission — to build a coalition to assist families in need around the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District (HEB ISD) — I felt the first brush of the excitement that would come in waves on the morning of the backpack drive. As a new employee, I was impressed by the passion Scott had to help others. He mentioned that OB2S was an important part of his mission, and my eagerness to attend only grew.
I thought I knew what to expect, but my vision of the event was not even close to what I saw when I arrived.
My family and I walked toward the building — First Baptist Church of Hurst was hosting that year — and were warmly greeted by several volunteers: the first of many loving interactions that day. I introduced myself and asked if they could point me in the right direction, and they were happy to do so. As I entered the building, I could feel the energy and happiness of so many! It radiated from the children and parents in line, waiting to get their supplies and return to school. My own kids remarked on how many people were there, and I replied that it was a blessing that so many volunteers were there to help.
The spectacle of the fair was overwhelming, and I spent most of my time trying to focus on meeting the families who would be part of my school in the upcoming year. The sights and sounds, the colors and activities, are all a blur in my mind. What stands out, however, are the faces. The smiles, joy, and excitement on every face told the story better than I ever could, even if I did remember every detail. I saw students hugging their backpacks, then wearing them — empty! — around the fair. I never would have expected anyone to be so happy just to have a bag of their own.
Shaking off the awe, I made my way to the front of the lines so I could take my position and welcome our Bellaire families. Instantly, I was met by a child — one of my students — who introduced herself to me, her new principal. Lizzet (not her real name) spoke broken English, so I replied in my broken Spanish. That got her excited.
“You know Spanish?” she said, her face finding a permanent place in my mind. As best as I could, I explained that her Spanish was much better than mine. I asked if she could help me to get better this year.
Lizzet explained how excited she was to get her supplies, and I was glad to hear the ownership in her voice. In the few short minutes I had with her mother, I discovered that the family had recently moved to the United States from Mexico in search of a safer environment. Mom had lost friends and family to violence in her native city, and she wanted better for her kids. Moving to the US was necessary, but now that school was beginning, the family was discovering that did not have money for the needed supplies or the other costs associated with the beginning of the school year.
Our public school system is “free,” but as a parent myself, I know that growing children need new shoes, clothes, and supplies on a regular basis. Those things can cost families hundreds of dollars per child, and that’s just to get started at school. For families with multiple children, and especially for those in poverty, the cost of starting school can be an overwhelming. Luckily, a school staff member had told Lizzet's mom about OB2S. Now, that need could be met.
She said it was such a blessing.
Our conversation was cut short as the line began to move, drawing the family into the event itself. It was a good kind of interruption; one that meant they were on the way to their supplies. The Moment had finally come, and Lizzet would soon be the proud owner of the same items all her classmates had collected for the first day of school. I watched as the families of Bellaire were welcomed into the sanctuary, where all the action was happening. Although I was careful to continue my introductions with each new child and their family, I couldn’t resist keeping my eye on Lizzet and her mother.
The glee in her eye was evident, even from the other side of the enormous room. As she went from station to station, her smile and excitement grew. She wasn’t alone, either; I saw that joy time and again from my other students, my new kids, and I felt so touched that these volunteers would do this for my kids. I could not adequately thank them. I still can’t.
At the end of the scheduled time for Bellaire Elementary, I tried to steal one last glance at Lizzet, but could not find her. Our follow-up would have to wait. My own family and I piled back into the car, processing everything we had seen. As we drove away, my daughter said that she wanted to help people the way the volunteers had, and that it was so amazing that so many kids were getting supplies for school. She was an elementary student herself, and I was amazed that even she was touched by what she had seen. My son concurred and asked if he could help next time!
The best part of Operation Back 2 School is that it doesn’t end when students walk out the door with their new backpacks. Volunteers, like my son, leave with new perspective. Students come away changed, as well. When the first day of school arrived, I saw Lizzet strut through the doors of Bellaire with the pride and joy that most students carry into each new year. I noticed her a few times that day: she stood out to me when I checked in on her classroom, when I watched her practice walking in line with her classmates in the hallway, and again at dismissal. She was excited to be a Bellaire Whirlybird, as was I!
We would see each other around campus throughout my first semester, and each time we’d share the same wonderful memory. She would remark, “Remember that day when we saw each other at the church?” and I would nod and remind her that she and her mother were the first family I met at my new school. I was amazed that she still remembered and spoke of the event in detail, still wore the turquoise and lime green backpack she received that day. I think it was more than a schoolbag for her. It represented her new freedom. Her right to have supplies of her very own. This school year, Lizzet had everything she needed to be in charge of Lizzet. Suddenly, the sight of students hugging their bags made sense to me.
Unfortunately, as often happens, Lizzet and her family moved over Christmas break. I don’t know the details of their relocation, but I do know that they moved to another city in Texas to live with family. It’s a common pattern for families like hers, who follow the job market and rely on their relatives for support. Although I have yet to see my first Bellaire friend again, I pray that her experience at our school was as memorable for her as OB2S seemed to be. I hope she still remembers every detail of it, and that, even if she isn’t wearing that lime green bag anymore, she’s still strutting the way she did when she wore it.
This August I will begin my fourth year at Bellaire, but the power and impact of OB2S will never cease to amaze me. I continue to be humbled by the way this one-day event can make such a difference in the lives of so many children. Children who, maybe for the first time, have supplies that are theirs. I am blessed to serve in this school district, and every day is a gift. This event is an impressive taste of the awe-inspiring love this community has for my Bellaire kids. It truly takes a village to raise a child, and with the help of OB2S, thousands of students like Lizzet will be ready to learn when we open our doors for the first day of school.