12th annual Back to School Fair

HPAC helps rings in new school year

This year the fair emphasized early education, a decision made after extensive research in the community, said HPAC’s executive director.

Volunteer Cookie Figueroa prepares bags of fresh vegetables to be given out to parents at the Hunts Point Alliance’s Back to School Fair. Photo: Brooke Henderson

Some 600 children and their families took to Hunts Point Riverside Park to celebrate the return of the school year on a Saturday in September.

The 12th Annual Back to School Fair, which was organized by the Hunts Point Alliance for Children, included free manicures, pedicures, backpacks and produce.

This year the fair emphasized early education, a decision made after extensive research in the community, said Jill Gomez, the executive director.

“A lot of that is because when you enter school ready to learn, it sets you up for success,” she said.

HPAC conducted focus groups with parents who said finding resources for preschool-aged children is difficult. From kindergarten on up, Gomez explained, students have their teachers to provide them with learning opportunities. But although those children may learn about helpful resources or fun, local programs at school, she said, those aged 5 and under rely on their community to inform them about ways to prepare for school.

HPAC gave away 500 backpacks, double the number it gave away last year. While Jeyla Weathers waited for her four children to pick their new bags, she sat on a bench in front of the river with her godson Isaiah Williams. On his back was his choice: a black bag with a proud “BX” in white letters.

“I picked it because I don’t like too many colors,” Williams said.

Arielis Rosa, 4, didn’t have that problem. She fiddled with her new hot pink backpack and wiggled her fingers, showing off her lime green manicure while she waited in line for a bag of produce with her mother, Marleny Garcia. Garcia first saw the flyers for the fair taped to her corner store window last year, and now she plans to make it a regular outing.

“We love it,” she said. “They get to come out of the house at the end of summer and do activities.”

The manicure station that Rosa enjoyed was a first for the fair, run by volunteers from the Beyond Beauty & Barber Academy. Director of the community partnership program Shamekia Gordon said it’s an effort to make children feel ready for the new school year.

“You want them to feel comfortable and confident entering a new environment where other students might be more prepared than them,” Gordon said. “Not everyone can afford to get a haircut or a nice manicure.”

Although Gordon isn’t from New York, she sees echoes of her own experience growing up in inner city Boston in Hunts Point. There’s a lack of resources for communities of color, she said, and supporting the whole family is a way to break the cycle.

“We’re thinking about equity, how to elevate families and make sure families are sustainable,” she said.

While their children played, older family members had the chance to grab fresh carrots, spinach and more donated by Urban Health Plan, a Longwood-based nonprofit that provides health care and health education. Volunteer Cookie Figueroa hurried to pass out the bundles of vegetables as her station gets busy.

Stephanie Portillo, a 2011 HPAC Scholar, worked hard to put together this year’s Back to School Fair. The program helped the community organizer, now age 24, apply to universities and become the first person in her family to go to college. Now, she’s pouring that same love back into the community.

“This isn’t just some place where you grow up and leave,” said Portillo, who serves as a volunteer board member on Bronx Community Board 2. “Whenever people tell me that Hunts Point is unsafe, I tell them it feels like home.”