Shennetta Smith wore her “Never Surrender” T-shirt to the Eastside Families Back to School Parade & Festival Aug. 30.
It was truth in advertising for Smith, for her four children, the staff at First Creek Middle School and the 20-plus social services and performers at the festival. All of them are fighting the odds in the East Side neighborhood, where the population is low-income, diverse and moves more than average.
For all its fun, freebies and food, this was a serious, and successful, experiment.
The aim was to invite the families, to make them feel welcome and supported at the school, said principal Brad Brown. Family involvement is key to students’ success, and getting so many of them there was a big win.
“We planned for 500 people,” Brown said of the barbecue lunch. “I don’t know if we fed half the people before the food ran out.”
It was the same with the 200 backpacks. There were still 100 kids needing them after they were gone.
Seen one way, it was a disappointment. From the flip side, it was an indication that families are engaging with the school. Fahren Johnson, program director at the school’s Eagle Center, told the kids who missed out that she would try her best to rustle up enough school supplies for them.
Even as things were running out Brown was optimistic. People came and got a look at who was ready to support them. Inspire them.
Tacoma firefighters led the parade with a truck. School and local officials waved from LeMay cars. The Urban Empire dance crew and the Electronettes step team dazzled with their skills. Rodney Raccoon made healthy living look like fun. Lincoln High School Cheerleaders made high school seem glamorous. Teachers from Lister, Blix and Roosevelt elementary schools marched with banners.
At the festival, Lincoln students Sienna Weber, Azariea Bonner-Harris and Meme Weber represented the First Creek Sisterhood. They are mentors bent on helping middle schoolers discover their real strengths.
Sarah Teague introduced families to United Way of Pierce County’s 211 program, which directs people to the resources – from heat to counseling to food – they need.
Yasmine Farrington of Save Our Soles brought 100 pairs of shoes to give out for free.
“I used to collect shoes,” the Central Washington University junior said. “I woke up one morning and thought, ‘I am so selfish.’”
Now she directs the non-profit she founded to give shoes away.
Jesse Pasqua of AmeriCorps was signing up students for the College Bound Scholarship program.
Megan Gaines and Gayla Bacon kept track of the kids who took candies from the Catholic Community Services table. One piece only, they said. Too much is bad for you.
But this event, they said was good for everybody in a neighborhood that’s richer in determination than cash.
“It brings a huge surge of hope,” Gaines said. “When you have families who are down to no finances, who are struggling to survive, and their kids need supplies, and the teacher is asking you to send in Kleenex and hand sanitizers and you are barely able to clothe your children, it’s embarrassing. They feel embarrassed about hand-me-downs. You’re doing the best you can, and yet again, you feel like you’ve failed. When you can get school supplies, you think, at least I have that. At least I did this.”
She paused and looked around and thought of all those notebooks filled, all those pencils down to nubs in a few months’ time.
“I wish they could be held more than once a year,” she said.
And there Shennetta Smith stood with her children, proof that this much collaboration, this much support pays off.
The kids, Abrigail, 10, Dartanyon, 9, Zion, 5, and Josiah Pratcher, 3, finished their burgers and asked to go to the bounce houses while their mom told the family’s story.
They moved to Graham from the East, and got scammed by a man who broke into foreclosed homes, changed the locks and rented them to victims, including Smith and her family. When the law caught up with him, the family ended up living in a Salvation Army shelter.
Three months later, they had a chance to move into Salishan, where counselors introduce residents to all the programs that can help them become independent again.
They furnished their home, thanks to Northwest Furniture Bank. They stayed healthy, thanks to Community Health Care.
Then she and her husband divorced.
“I knew I wanted to go to school,” Smith said, and outlined all the support that helped her earn her chemical dependency counselor’s certificate and, this year, her associate’s degree. She is bound for Evergreen State College this fall, for a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
Her children talk about what they want to become after college.
“I was so down when I came here,” she said, looking out at the festival’s social services. “If it wasn’t for them, it would be so much harder. So much harder. They are willing to help you if you are willing to do the work to get on your feet and be self-sufficient.”
They, like Smith, never surrender.