Ready to Learn Fair gives students the tools for a successful start

Look at all that cool stuff students got in their backpack.
Look at all that cool stuff students got in their backpack.
Some of the backpacks that had yet to be picked up shortly after the doors opened.
Some of the backpacks that had yet to be picked up shortly after the doors opened.
Brady Haywood-Minery, 12, mans the hygiene pack table.
Brady Haywood-Minery, 12, mans the hygiene pack table.
Dental surgical assistant Michelle Broder works on Thomas Spooner’s teeth in the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile.
Dental surgical assistant Michelle Broder works on Thomas Spooner’s teeth in the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile.
Daniel Spooner (left) and Odeyi Kizumg, both 11, get some work done on their hair.
Daniel Spooner (left) and Odeyi Kizumg, both 11, get some work done on their hair.

Back-to-school season is officially in full swing.

Parents and students have no doubt been busy shopping for notebooks, pens, pencils, backpacks, three-ring binders and sweet Lisa Frank folders, as well as getting stylish haircuts and routine checkups.

But for some families, going back to school means, well, just going back to school. No shopping. No haircuts. No checkups.

Caroline Keane, a paraprofessional at Concord High School, noticed some kids coming to school a couple years ago carrying their supplies in plastic bags. “It seemed terrible that they couldn’t even have backpacks,” she said.

And so a project was born.

Last year, Keane and Nicole Newman, a paraprofessional at Rundlett Middle School, started the Ready to Learn Fair. The fair, which was held last Wednesday, takes over the Rundlett cafeteria for a day in which students and families in need from across the Concord School District can come in and get a backpack full of school supplies and hygiene products. But that’s not it. There were haircuts provided by the New England School of Barbering and a dental checkup courtesy of Dr. Earle Simpson Jr. with the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile. And all of it costs nothing to the students.

Everything provided at the fair is the result of community teamwork. School fundraisers helped pay for the backpacks and supplies (more than $2,000 was raised). The barbering school donated time and resources and ditto for the Care Mobile. A grant allowed for two school buses to shuttle kids back and forth from home to the school. School employees volunteered to staff the event.

And the efforts paid off. Keane said 220 supply-filled backpacks were given away this year, compared with the 65 that were handed out in the summer of 2014.

That jump is significant, and part of the reason is because the program expanded this year to cover the whole school district, whereas last year’s event was only open to Rundlett students. This year also was the first time the Care Mobile was offered – “a huge service,” Keane said – and the first time buses were available to provide transportation. There was even more soap and deodorant “to really make the hygiene bag really worthwhile.”

“We’ve gotten a lot of wonderful feedback, just how it helps kids,” Keane said. “It helps them feel really confident about when they walk in the door.”

Keane said she was touched by many stories she heard from parents at Wednesday’s event. One woman told Keane that her daughter hadn’t had a haircut in two years. Another mom was almost in tears, because she said she didn’t know how she was going to be able to get her kids the stuff they needed. “It was a very heartwarming moment, and we were just glad we could help, you know?” she said.

And help it did. Many families, upon leaving, chatted among themselves about how great the program is and how nice it is for all of the volunteers to do this. Some kids skipped away from the cafeteria, wearing their new backpacks and sparkling smiles.

But what if you couldn’t make it, or maybe you didn’t even hear about it? Is there anything still available?

Yes. Keane said there were about 15 backpacks left over, and anyone who gets to school and still needs some supplies can ask about them. The Care Mobile will also return in six to eight weeks to both provide follow-up checkups for those who went Wednesday and offer services for anyone who didn’t get the chance to get those pearly whites looked at. Some students were unfortunately turned away because their parents were not there to give permission.

Although the program was an overall success, Keane and Newman saw some things that could be improved upon in the future. For one, they noticed many people arriving in taxis or on foot, despite the free transportation that was offered. They also would like to add a vision test station and a place where kids can get physicals that are often required for sports.

“We would love to be able to do this every year,” Newman said. “The long-term goal would be to have every student have everything they need when school starts – vision test, physical, supplies, etc. We’re really trying to reach out in as many ways as possible.”

The program, only two years old, has already done enough to impress all of the participants. “I’ve already spoken to the Concord principal and the dentist and the barbers and they’ve already signed up for next year,” Keane said. “Nicole and I will be starting in October to plan for next year.”

To learn more about the program or to get involved, visit sau8.org or call Rundlett Middle School at 225-0862 and ask for Nicole Newman or Caroline Keane.

Author: Jon Bodell

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