LUMBERTON — Thousands of students and their parents, grandparents and guardians packed the Southeastern North Carolina Agricultural Center on Thursday to pick up free school supplies during a meet-and-greet at the third annual Public Schools of Robeson County Back to School Celebration.
According to Amy Haigler, parent coordinator for the school district, 24,000 book bags — enough for each student in the school system — were stuffed with a variety of school supplies, including paper, writing tablets, pens, pencils and sharpeners, and given to students.
“We prepare a book bag for every child, because Public Schools of Robeson County requires a mesh or clear book bag, and those are expensive,” Haigler said. The celebration also provided each parent with a tote bag and some goodies, including a coffee mug displaying the school system’s character education words.
The bags and supplies were donated by the school system and about 10 businesses.
“Usually, we have more, but with the economy being like it is and everybody spread sort of then, I think this year we had less donations,” Haigler said.
The donations may have been fewer, but they were still able to meet the demands of a larger crowd.
About 10,000 people registered ahead of time for the event in 2010, according to Haigler. Last year that number rose to 14,000. By 4:30 p.m. Thursday, about 14,500 people had registered at the event.
Haigler said they schedule the event every year for the Thursday before the tax-free holiday weekend, which began at midnight Thursday.
“I arrived here this morning at 5:45 and there were people in line. And we don’t open the doors till 7 o’clock,” she said, adding that in years past, the event has drawn people from Hoke and Cumberland counties.
“Dr. (Johnny) Hunt takes care of his own first, but he says, ‘Ms. Amy, if we see a child or a parent that’s really in need we have donated materials left, then we give,” she said.
The meeting center was divided into halves, west and east, with each including representatives and booths from each of the 42 schools in the system. Each school had its booth decorated with banners, balloons and decorations bearing the school’s name, colors or mascot.
During the day, parents reported to their child’s school, picked up the book bag and supplies and met with teachers and the school principal to learn more about the upcoming year. They could also meet with representatives from the school system’s child nutrition unit to sign their child up for free or reduced lunch or get educational material.
After participants finished inside the meeting center, they could cap off their visit with free refreshments provided outside.
Sabrina Branch, of Pembroke, brought her three children to the celebration, two who are school-age, one attending Peterson Elementary and the other Deep Branch Elementary.
“We got lots of good stuff for school,” she said while walking out of the meeting center with her children and their book bags. “They got some coloring pencils, notebooks and paper. We’re getting ready to head out and see what they’ve got over here.”
Branch said this is their first time attending the event.
“It’s wonderful, I love it,” she said. “This is the first time I came, but I love it. It’s really good for the community.”
Lumberton resident Annette Hurley, who first came to the event last year, came to get supplies for her daughter and grandsons.
“It’s real helpful. Gas is high, and it helps because you’ve got the free book bags and the paper,” she said.
Superintendent Johnny Hunt said he didn’t envision the event growing to what it was this year when Haigler first proposed it.
“We even have some staff that came to us from other systems, and they are not aware of something like this in their respective counties,” he said. “… It’s a way of meeting the parents, meeting the children and at the same time providing necessary supplies that are going to help them going into the school year.”
Amanda Hefner, a teacher at Parkton Elementary, said the get-together benefits teachers as much as it does the students and parents.
“A lot of our parents struggle to get just what they need every day, so this gives them an opportunity to provide the things they need for school,” she said. “It helps teachers to not have to buy as many supplies for the students, so it works out both ways.”
State Rep. Garland Pierce was impressed with the friendly atmosphere.
“It starts the year off in a good, positive way,” he said. “Parents get to meet some of the educators and principals. It’s showing that Robeson County is really concerned about education.
“… This is the start of a great year. This is building relationships.”
The school year, which used to start in Robeson County in early August, will begin Aug. 27. State legislators pushed back the starting date after tourism officials complained the early school start was hurting their local economies, especially those at the beaches.