CAMDEN, NJ — School supplies laid out neatly on tables cleared quicker than the volunteers might have expected in constructing the setup.
Children from the Liberty Park Estates, accompanied by their families, piled books, pencils, and composition and spiral-bound notepads into backpacks — some themed for the major Philadelphia sports teams. Other youngsters less enthused about the approaching school year opted first to play in the inflatable bounce houses nearby on the housing development lawn.
By the end of the event last week, more than 200 backpacks were distributed through the efforts of the Liberty Park Business and Community Neighborhood Association to help prepare for a return to the classroom.
Sponsors for the giveaway, in support of a local Early Literacy STEM Preschool Reading Program, included Bookmates, South Jersey Federal Credit Union, Charles Holmes, Verizon Foundation, Uncommon Schools, Marty McKernan, and the Community Planning & Advocacy Council. Also acknowledged were residents Jay Sims and Elizabeth Rosado, and an anonymous donor from the neighborhood.
The supplies drive, which also offered bottles of toothpaste, toothbrushes, floss, and nail files, was held specifically for those living in the section of townhomes in Liberty Park.
“I think this is a big help,” Alexis Leary said Thursday afternoon while waiting for her son, Nasir, who is entering second grade in the fall, to be dropped off from a nearby summer program. “Some of these kids don’t have book bags, some kids don’t have pencils, some parents can’t afford to buy (supplies).”
“(Most of the time) all the money goes to clothes and diapers, so this is great for people who can’t afford supplies. (I’m) grateful that this happens in the community.”
Novella Hinson, a longtime Camden government employee and fixture in city politics, said the event has been held for "quite a while." The community association, she said, started about 15 years ago under former Mayor Dana Redd and Hinson's late husband, Theodore.
“He had the vision to start this group,” Novella Hinson told TAPinto Camden. “We said we wanted to do some community-based building in Liberty Park.”
As local officials and supporters took a moment to address the residents, Hinson couldn't help but poke fun at seeing a Philadelphia Eagles backpack in the hands of Camden County Freeholder Jonathan Young, a Dallas Cowboys fan.
Young, laughing along, went on to say what a back-to-school program like this would have meant to his neighborhood growing up, with "how hard it was for us to get school supplies."
"And that's what it's all about," he said. "So for all those who were involved in this today, I'd like to personally say 'thank you' for what you're doing and supporting these kids, making sure they have a good start."
Mayor Frank Moran commended Hinson for her leadership and commitment to Camden. He said that she has consistently fought for an important component in childhood education: ensuring students have strong reading skills at their grade level.
"That is going to be the true success and what we are judged on when the time comes," Moran said.
As her son arrived and prepared to fill a backpack, Leary looked around the lawn at the children playing and enjoying snacks on the summer afternoon.
“This is great. They don’t have stuff like this every day,” she said.