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Big Backpack Event moves to North Fort Myers High

By Staff | Jun 7, 2018

The Big Backpack Event is returning for the 19th year next month at a new location, right in time for the start of the new school year.

“I’m grateful we can empower so many children to start the school year off right with the tools they need for success,” said Leonardo Garcia, executive director of the Multicultural Centre of Southwest Florida, in a prepared statement. “Our committee, sponsors, vendors and volunteers show tremendous commitment each year to generosity and building greater cultural understanding.”

This year the event will take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, July 29, at North Fort Myers High School, 5000 Orange Grove Blvd. Supplies will be provided to the first 2,000 students ages 5-12 accompanied by a parent or guardian.

With Harborside Event Center under construction, the event moved to the high school, which provides more parking and puts the event in the middle of a community where there are more students enrolled in free and reduced lunches.

Supplies will include a free backpack, notebook paper, pocket folders, glue, 24-pack of Crayola crayons, pens and pencils. Sometimes, depending on donations, the students also receive rulers and composition books.

In addition to the backpack and school supplies, Connie Ramos-Williams, Multicultural Centre Of Southwest Florida Big Backpack Event media chair, said they also will have vendors at the event, providing face painting and free eye exams. She said the most popular vendors are those providing free haircuts.

“We have about 50 haircutting stations, haircutters from all over Lee County donating their time,” Ramos-Williams said, adding that they typically provide 500 children with a free cut.

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office usually attends the event to provide fingerprinting as well.

“The generosity of the sponsors, donors and people that come out as vendors is tremendous,” she added.

The Multicultural Center of Southwest Florida committee goes out and purchases the supplies every year. With such stores as Walmart providing at-cost prices for the goods, they are able to spend $10 on each student, providing them with a backpack and school supplies.

“Our budget for fundraising is $20,000,” she said, so they can assist 2,000 students.

Ramos-Williams said Leonardo Garcia and Jim White, cofounders of the Multicultural Centre of Southwest Florida, wanted to come up with a way to celebrate diversity in the community, while giving back to families most in need, which initially started a back-to-school festival at St. Michael’s Parish Hall. That first event, nearly two decades ago, provided free backpacks to 50 children.

“It was a beautiful event. It was serving a good part of the market,” Ramos-Williams said.

Following that event, Garcia asked Ramos-Williams, who had just moved to Southwest Florida from the Miami area, what they could do to improve the event, to serve more families.

The following year they grew the event and helped 500 students, followed by 1,000 students the next year. That number increased by another thousand over the last 10 years.

The yearly attendance typically reflects how the economy is fairing. Ramos-Williams said with the economy more in a recovery stage with a 3 percent unemployment rate, they do not expect the serious degree of help they have provided in previous years.

“At the height of the recession in 2007 and 2008 there were lines that were 20 people wide at Harborside,” she said, adding that those years the demographics of those seeking help had changed.

During the Great Recession, they had blue collar workers and people making six- figure incomes out of work, seeking help during the Big Backpack Event.

Those years attracted 15,000 people, where now about 5,000 to 7,500 people attend the event.

“That’s still a lot of individuals and folks that need help, but thankfully not the numbers we had at the very worst of our economy,” Ramos-Williams said.

Since the event’s inception, the Multicultural Centre of Southwest Florida has provided new backpacks and supplies to more than 35,000 students.

They are accepting sponsors and donors for this year’s event. For every $10, the donor is able to Adopt-A-Student.

“No donor can give too little, or too much. Every $10 made out to the Multicultural Centre of Southwest Florida Adopts-A-Student for back to school,” she said.

Those interested can make a donation online at www.multicultural-centre.org, email info@multicultural-centre.org, or call (239) 333-5547. A check can also be sent to the Multicultural Centre of Southwest Florida, P.O. Box 61713, Fort Myers, FL, 33906.

“It’s a feel-good event for the students and families that get the help they need for back to school. The volunteers get a lot out of it as well. There is nothing that makes us happier than seeing a child smile. The first day of school should be exciting for everybody,” Ramos-Williams said.