Elkhart families are regaining the financial independence they lost during the recession.
Yet there’s still a line in the Concord Mall parking lot in the early morning hours before the giant Back 2 School Elkhart school supply giveaway starts, but fewer families are there.
"We usually see about 4,000 to 5,000 people,“ James Taylor, co-founder and president of Back 2 School Elkhart said. ”Last year we had 3,000 or 3,500. This year we are planning and managing for even less.“
Fliers for Back 2 School Elkhart advertise that there are 1,000 backpacks and 500 pairs of shoes available.
Organizers plan to eventually close Back 2 School Elkhart, which is a nonprofit, and let smaller groups like local churches or other nonprofits take over helping families who still need assistance during back-to-school time.
How it began
Back 2 School Elkhart started in 2009, at a time when Elkhart residents were struggling with high unemployment rates.
The event was born out of a desire to help families who were hurting financially. At first, organizers wanted to host a free outdoor concert in the fall and give families an outlet for fun at no charge.
Then, someone mentioned giving away backpacks and other back-to-school items.
Several organizations were already doing this, Taylor said, so he and other organizers of what would become Back 2 School Elkhart asked these groups to combine their efforts to create one big school supply giveaway.
At the time, Taylor’s own family was struggling.
He and his wife were real estate agents and they didn't have much business in 2009 or in the years that followed.
Back 2 School Elkhart was personal for Taylor, as he experienced some of the same difficulties that many families in Elkhart were experiencing.
"It wasn't just like, I’m going to do a good thing, a noble thing and all these platitudes, it was really like, ’Okay, what can I do to help out. My family is hurting and I know other families are hurting,’” he said.
’People who really need our services’
One reason Back 2 School Elkhart combined the efforts of several local school supply drives was to reduce the number of people possibly taking advantage of these types of events.
Now that organizations are collaborating more, there’s less chance that people will bounce from one giveaway to the next, possibly collecting more than they need, Taylor said.
Back 2 School Elkhart doesn't ask families to prove their income level when they come to get the free supplies because organizers want to preserve families’ dignity.
So, it’s possible that some of those in line for backpacks don’t really need the free items.
But that’s just the price Back 2 School Elkhart organizers are willing to pay in order to help people who are in need.
“The families who come at two, three, four in the morning…those are the people who really need our services,” Taylor said. “We've found that the people who show up the night before are our neediest families...and that works out to about 1,000 to 1,500 people.”
In 2011, when Back 2 School Elkhart was at Roosevelt Elementary School, Taylor met a mother who showed up in the middle of the night with her two children.
She waited there all night for the giveaway to begin, but the next year she was on the other side of the table as a volunteer.
“She no longer needed the services and that’s what we are shooting for,” Taylor said. “We want them to come back and pay it forward. And there are several stories like that. That’s our heart, that’s what we want to see happen.”
How to attend
Back 2 School Elkhart’s health fair in partnership with the Minority Health Coalition was Saturday, Aug. 2.
The school supply giveaway is Saturday, Aug. 9 from 9 a.m. until supplies are gone at the Concord Mall parking lot in Elkhart.
Families who attend can collect school supplies and shoes, eat hot dogs, listen to music and check out information and resources provided by several community organizations.
A carnival will be open there the night before from 5 to 10 p.m. and again after the supplies are given away on Saturday.
Wristbands for the carnival will be $10 each and Back 2 School Elkhart will sponsor a limited number of children.
Organizers are also looking for individuals or businesses to sponsor the rides.
For more information about Back 2 School Elkhart, visit the organization’s website, back2schoolelkhart.com or call Taylor at 304-9896.