An estimated 800 children and their families filled the Beach Church of Jacksonville Beach Aug. 6 for the 23rd annual Back to School with BEAM event serving hundreds of children for their back-to-school needs.
From 8 a.m. to noon a selection of books, school supplies, clothing, and backpacks were available during the event, which provides essential items for Beaches children in low-income families to help them start the school year.
Back to School with BEAM was the culmination of the organization’s summer-long collection of donations at several drop-off locations throughout the community. According to Christina Epstein of BEAM’s communications committee, the items are essential for a number of reasons, not the least of which is giving underserved families the help they need to send their kids to school.
“It’s a common misconception that there aren’t a lot of people in the community that need the service BEAM provides here but that’s not the case,” she said. “There are lots of people who need help – families who are just trying to make a dollar stretch. And there’s nothing wrong with needing help.”
Shoppers Shaquanda Robinson and Elnora Martin heralded those efforts as they prepared for the school year, expressing gratefulness for BEAM’s commitment to making the back to school process run smoothly.
“It’s such a good experience and it’s so great that the community pitches in and helps out with this much-needed service,” Robinson said.
“I’ve got four children to send back to school so it definitely helps a lot,” she said. “This event is heartfelt, it’s caring and I look forward to it every year because I can see that they care.”
It’s a sentiment that rang true Saturday as many community members and long-time BEAM volunteers took to the space offered by the church to help. Volunteers stacked a plethora of backpacks, organized racks of clothing and packaged bags stuffed with binders, paper and other supplies to hand out during the event, and Native Sun Natural Foods Market’s Jacksonville Beach store provided nutritional shakes and snacks.
“Community support has been extraordinary, as it always is,” said BEAM Executive Director Susan King, citing the help of the community and organizations such as Native Sun, Ponte Vedra Rotary, Oceanside Rotary and the Exchange Club as key players. “The help of the community is what truly makes this event – people donate supplies, clothes, time, food and all sorts of things to make it work.”
King also realized the importance of giving children and families the options available at the “shopping” event, and making sure all schoolchildren can begin the academic year on equal ground.
“Every child deserves to start school on the same foot – with confidence, new clothes and feeling positive about the year,” she said.
That vision hasn’t changed since the back to school event’s inception in 1993, according to its creator Karen Wolfson, past president of The Women’s Board of Wolfson Children’s Hospital and past chair of the Wolfson Board of Directors.
“We felt compelled to start it when BEAM first moved into a new office – there was no more room for the clothing but the children still had a need,” Wolfson said. “It gave us the idea for the event.”At its start, Wolfson said, the event served approximately 250 kids with 25 volunteers; Saturday’s event saw more than triple the amount of children and four times the amount of volunteers. Kids were given their choice of a new backpack, eight pieces of clothing, a $15 Payless Shoes voucher, a pair of socks and underwear, and one book in addition to a bag of school supplies.
The most valuable thing of all, however, was the peace of mind afforded to the families helped by the program.
“It’s fun for the volunteers and the shoppers and necessary because it really does influence the entire year,” Wolfson said. “With the beginning of school starting, the purpose is to pick children up so they can have a positive experience and to make things easier for families.”