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Hundreds queue up for Big Backpack school supply giveaway

By Staff | Jul 24, 2011

Hundreds of families began to form a line around Harborside Event Center in downtown Fort Myers three hours before the 12th annual Big Backpack Event began to ensure they were among the first 2,000 to receive a free backpack filled with school supplies.

Michael Bonsanto, a volunteer with First Baptist Elevation Ministry was one of 100 volunteers who helped keep the lines moving without people cutting in front of others, along with handing out cold water to those waiting to get inside.

Bonsanto said when he arrived at 8 a.m. Sunday morning there was already 200 people waiting in line to receive their backpack and supplies.. He said the line completely wrapped around the entire building before the doors opened at 11 a.m.

For 5-12 year olds to receive a free backpack and school supplies they had to be accompanied by an adult or guardian. Once they arrived inside, the children had their hands stamped and they received at ticket, so they could get in line to choose a colored backpack of their choice. After they received their backpack they followed table after table that were full of supplies as volunteers handed them what they needed for the first day of school.

After the children had their backpack in hand, they had the opportunity to receive a free haircut, eye exam courtesy of Ronald McDonald Mobile Care Unit and fingerprinting. In addition the event featured the book mobile, bounce houses, live entertainment and the chance to visit many vendor tables.

Jerry Olson, a volunteer with the Rondald McDonald House said they provided at least 300 children with free eye exams about an hour after the event began.

Jeff Bieniasz said he waited for an hour and a half before he was able to enter Harborside with his son who will be entering first grade at Cape Coral Charter School. Although he said he thought the event was nice, he was surprised by how many people attended..

“I think he is a little overwhelmed,” Bieniasz said about what his son thought about the event.

He said he already purchased a few items for school, but what his son received Sunday will help him quite a bit.

Delayna Collins also attended with her so,n Mastin, who will attend Sunshine Elementary School in a few weeks.

“I think it’s pretty cool,” she said about the event because she does not have to go school supply shopping now. “It’s great, I’m excited.”

Lee County School District Chairman Thomas Scott also attended the event Sunday to help keep the stacks of backpacks high, so the lines could continue to flow for the children to receive their supplies. He said he also helped with handing out supplies last year as well.

“It is fun to see the kids excited about it,” Scott said about the children receiving school supplies and backpacks.

He said last year as soon as soon as the backpacks ran out, the line ran out as well.

“I am interested to see if it happens again this year,” Scott said.

He said he thinks the event is a good thing because the parents would otherwise have to purchase supplies their kids need for the first day of school.

“It helps,” Scott said because “it is less they have to buy.”

He said it was great to see that parents attended the event with their children to demonstrate what they need to be successful for school. Scott encourages parents not to stop working with their children after Sunday ended. He said he wants parents to work with their children when they do their homework to continue to stay involved in their children’s education.

Connie Ramos-Williams, media and event chair, said the annual event is a way to promote and celebrate diversity while helping families in need. She said there is a tremendous need in the community due to unemployment rates, no income families and one income families which cannot afford to buy their children school supplies.

She said typically a line begins to form about 7 a.m. every year of families who are in need.

“Fortunately we have never run out of supplies,” Ramos-Williams said about the event. She said although the first 2,000 children who come through the door are guaranteed a backpack, they usually have between 2,200 and 2,400 backpacks due to funds they generated through the year.

Some of the school supplies the students received were pens, pencils, 24-pack of crayons, folders, glue, food vouchers, snack packs and the Constitution of the United States. Ramos-Williams said Hodges University also donated 25 gift cards for families to purchase more supplies from Target, which were placed in random backpacks.

She anticipated close to 12,000 people to attend the event before it ended at 3 p.m. Sunday.

The Multicultural Centre of Southwest Florida is a nonprofit organization that began more than 10 years ago to help bring diversity to the area. The first event that was held attracted 200 individuals and provided a backpack and supplies to 50 children. Since 1999, more than 25,000 Lee County children have benefited from the event.