By Sean Barron
Guy Burney was happy to see many youngsters taking home free book bags before they return to school, but the giveaway was about a lot more than free notebooks, pens and paper.
“We want young people to realize that the community is behind them,” said Burney, coordinator of the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence organization.
CIRV, which is a collaboration of social-service agencies, law enforcement and the community to reduce violence in the city, was on hand for Saturday’s Total Package Back-to-School Kick-Off and Book Bag Giveaway event at the Rayen Stadium, 250 Benita Ave., on the North Side.
The free, four-hour nondenominational gathering was to allow students in kindergarten through 12th grade to start the school year with free school supplies. The event also was to encourage and empower youngsters to achieve academic success, organizers said.
Hosting the gathering was the Youngstown City Schools, in partnership with CIRV, the city of Youngstown and NOW Youngstown, a faith-based organization that sponsors outdoor events and other events in some of the city’s high-crime areas while bringing messages of peace and hope.
NOW Youngstown derives its name from 2 Corinthians 6:2, which talks about God’s ability to immediately save those who seek his help.
Early on, 687 youngsters were registered to receive the estimated 2,800 book bags that contained notebooks, pens and pencils, note tabs, glue sticks and other materials. Ten students at a time with vouchers received their bags.
One of those was 5-year-old William Johnson of Youngstown, a Harding Elementary School kindergartener.
William took home a green-and-black bag and came with his mother, Christina Johnson, a monitorial aide at Harding.
Echoing Burney’s thoughts was the Rev. Rafael Cruz, pastor of Unity Baptist Church in Boardman, who said that a proper family upbringing is critical for encouraging youngsters to make positive choices.
“If the parents can’t get it right, the kids don’t have a chance,” he added.
Many young people are told and made to feel they’re worthless and unlovable, which too often translates into them making poor decisions and getting into trouble, the Rev. Mr. Cruz explained.
“They are worthy to be loved. Everybody is a treasure to God,” Mr. Cruz continued, adding that he’s trying to get more youngsters to see that exercising self-control and taking peaceful stances are more courageous when dealing with anger and conflicts than engaging in violence.
Also on hand was Erik Neff, an outreach adviser with TRIO Educational Opportunity Center, an organization at Eastern Gateway Community College that offers services such as computer training, after-school programs, tutoring, career-assessment testing, help with applying for scholarships and financial services.
Many attendees also spoke with members of the Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past organization, which is dedicated to teaching and upholding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s principles of nonviolence. The group had information about the fourth annual Nonviolence Parade and Rally, set for 3 p.m. Oct. 5 in downtown Youngstown.
Also pledging to reach out to students was city schools Superintendent Dr. Connie Hathorn, who said, “We will continue to work hard for your kids to be the best they can be.”
Offering additional remarks were Jim Tressel, president of Youngstown State University; state Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd; Richard Atkinson, president of the Youngstown Board of Education; John A. McNally, mayor of Youngstown; and a representative from the office of U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Howland, D-13th.
The giveaway kicked off with opening ceremonies from the Boys & Girls Club Drum Line. Also performing was the East High School cheerleading squad.