“Back to School in South L.A.”
By Sarah Stern
This past weekend, Real Medicine Foundation & the Florence Western Medical Center hosted their first “Back to School” Event, providing more than 60 children and families with brand new backpacks filled with school supplies.
Recognizing the needs of this community has not been the challenge; the challenge has been how to encourage the community to show up for the services available to them. Free health and fitness programs for adults and children are offered at the center by Real Medicine, yet often we find a low attendance due to lack of access to information, transportation and health issues. While we have worked diligently to encourage the patients with incentives to attend these programs, at times it can be frustrating. Many charities in Los Angeles share this dilemma.
So the question becomes how can we bring about awareness of our programming in an area where the digital age has fallen behind? Phone numbers on sign-up sheets are often disconnected the following month. Most patients do not have home computers, making emails a futile effort. How can we meet the needs of the community and bring forth something that they will show up for, while giving them access to information about the center’s services and our programming?
The thought came to me that a “Back to School” event just might be the perfect solution. Given that our annual children’s holiday party has grown steadily these past few years, I wondered if we were to add an additional annual event, one that would prepare the children for the upcoming school year with a sturdy, brand new backpack if we would not have a good response from the community. A backpack filled with school supplies that once upon a time were provided by the school systems. A backpack that would free the parents from the financial stress associated with back to school (and as most families have several children these stressors can be extremely hardening on the family as a whole); a backpack that would produce excitement in the child about returning to school.
Dr. Kevin Thomas and I discussed the idea and we proceeded to move forward. Now the real challenges would begin! I contacted company after company to see about the possibility of donated or discounted backpacks for the event. Time and time again I received the same automated response that – “due to the overwhelming number of requests each year, unfortunately at this time they would be unable to help us”. I then turned to the internet and in search of ideas for discounted backpacks. Sure, I could go to downtown LA and get backpacks for cheap, but I was determined to give the children something they could be proud of, something that would last. Every parent knows that the backpack is just about the most important accessory in a child’s life (other than tennis shoes, which will be next year’s event goal!).
I presented my woes to Dr. Martina Fuchs, CEO and founder of Real Medicine who offered to delegate $1,000 from a recent event’s proceeds, and I asked that the remaining funds raised from my 2011 “Athletes for Real Medicine” LA Marathon 5k also be applied toward the budget. I searched high and low and finally found the source of our backpacks; Wal-Mart. They not only offered fabulous backpacks that fit the budget, but had the best pricing on the school supplies we needed to fill them!
In a collaborated effort, in the final week we were able to fill the backpacks and secure even more, as we had a waitlist of 21 children looking to attend the event on top of the 60 already confirmed.
Mary Miller returned to Northrop Grumman countless times for items such as pens, reusable water bottles and science books. Florence Western contacted their partners and the Office of Councilman Bernard Parks for support; I reached out to friends and family with pleas on Facebook & a Causes “birthday wish”. The response from all was overwhelming and as the supplies began to trickle in, I found myself quite emotional. Monday morning I had 56 backpacks and a long list of supplies needed, we had some but where short on what we needed to complete each backpack. By Monday afternoon I had personally raised enough funds to purchase cases of notebooks, glue sticks, pencil boxes, colored pencils and 4 additional backpacks. When I returned home, I found that a friend had placed 5 cases of water from Costco inside my gate, which brought me to tears.
Tuesday morning, Mara Leng, the office manager from Florence Western Medical Center, called to say that they had secured 30 additional backpacks and several boxes of supplies from their Health Net representative, which allowed me to phone the remaining families on the waitlist and confirm their children for the event. One mother expressed tears of joy that her son would be able to attend and receive a backpack, which was a stark reminder of just how great the need for this type of event was and an affirmation of why I love my job so much. Wednesday, Real Medicine Team Armenia member Nairy Ghazourian introduced us to Amy Sheyer and Diane Baxter, Health Net executives who offered to provide all of the food for the event, which was a huge weight off our shoulders! Chip Matthews from FWMC then informed me that several LAPD cadets would be available to assist with the event (also very welcomed news!!). Thursday morning Nichole Stephenson a RMF volunteer and I began filling the 80 pencil boxes (I couldn’t help but be reminded of the “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucy and Ethel were on the factory line at the chocolate factory) we figured out what we were short and it was one last trip to Wal-Mart, 60lbs of red apples from Costco c/o Health Net to supplement the granola bars they were providing, and my all time favorite, the 99cent store for 60 water bottles. My apologies to the cashiers and to anyone that found themselves in line behind me this past week! Friday morning the city of LA dropped off 10 tables and 75 chairs (this is a free service for community events, a huge thank you to the office of Bernard Parks!) We completed the backpacks, did a walk through, called volunteers and printed flyers about the Saturday children’s outreach program and sign-up sheets. I didn’t know if I would ever sleep again..
At 8:30am on Saturday, setup began. A host of RMF volunteers along with Dr. Kevin Thomas’s sister and niece began the process of preparing the stage – the large parking lot area in the back of the clinic. Everyone pitched in and to our delight we were completely prepared to meet the 60+ children that were due to arrive at 10am. Once the children were checked in, they began working on banners for the clinic and for the upcoming “Mobility Event” the following weekend. The children were then led in a large group exercise routine by our very own Roz Baker, I peeked around the corner and a huge smile crossed my face as I watched these children in a large circle working together.
At this point, Councilman Bernard Parks, former Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and now representing the 8th District in South Los Angeles, made an appearance, much to everyone’s excitement. His tireless efforts and compassion towards the families of South Los Angeles have made him a pillar within the community. Snacks and much needed hydration were handed out to the children followed by the grand finale: Backpacks!! We lined up the little ones first, managed to avoid any mob scenes and successfully handed out all of the backpacks (along with shirts and other goodies that Mary Miller had received last minute) and the children proceeded to personalize their brand new backpack with a rainbow of fabric pens.
Parents expressed their gratitude and filled the Saturday Children’s Program sign-up sheet (much to my delight!). The children’s thanks came with hugs as we watched them head out the gate with their backpacks in tow.
We all sat back and relished in the day’s events, there had been not a single glitch and only one scraped knee (which Dr. Kevin Thomas saw to personally). Cadets and volunteers enjoyed much deserved sandwiches and discussed the marvels of the day. We had all come together for a common cause, and the day could not have been more perfect. I thank all of those who came out to support, who donated funds, supplies and most of all helped create our First Annual Back to School Event which will now be a part of our services for years to come.
To contribute to this initiative, please click Donate button or visit our website at realmedicinefoundation.org/donors.