By 9 a.m. Wednesday, the line outside the Durham Rescue Mission stretched two blocks.
Stressed-out single moms, doting grandmothers, fidgeting toddlers and newborns wrapped in slings on their mother’s chest waited in line before the mission’s East Main Street Center for Hope.
Some had already done some back-to-school shopping, and the 17th annual Durham Rescue Mission’s Back-to-School Pep Rally was a supplement.
“It helps out,” said Cynthia Hawley, 51, of Durham, who attended with two of her grandchildren. “(My daughter) has five kids.”
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The Rev. Ernie Mills, the mission’s founder and chief executive officer, started the event after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, said Rob Tart, the chief operating officer for the faith-based nonprofit homeless shelter that serves poor, addicted and homeless people.
“It’s just a drop in the bucket, but it’s something to help children get a good start in school,” Tart said.
The event gave away 3,025 backpacks, 5,850 plates of hot dogs, 9,531 pieces of clothing and 3,025 soccer balls and basketballs.
For Rosetta Johnson, it was the only kind of school shopping she could afford for her four children, Franklin Robinson, 13; Ayonna Robinson, 11; Myeshia Johnson, 10; and Ebony Johnson, 9.
“We were basically homeless this summer,” said Johnson, 34, a nursing student at Durham Tech. A misunderstanding about her income led to her Section 8 voucher being revoked, Johnson said. For six months, the family slept on two friends’ floors and in a hotel.
About 22 percent of children under the age of 18 were living in poverty in Durham, compared to 24 percent across the state, according to 2014 U.S. Census Bureau data.
Johnson’s voucher issue was recently resolved and she was able to move into a home on Ashe Street. Moving was expensive, though, not leaving much money for school clothes and supplies, she said.
Through all the turmoil, Ayonna maintained her straight A status. She is looking forward to starting the sixth grade and math.
“That’s my favorite class,” she said.
The family sought backpacks, along with clothes for school and church. Myeshia and Ebony wanted balloons.
At 9:15 a.m., the family along with dozens of others were led into the mission’s cafeteria, one of three areas in which a church service was held that morning.
Pastor Aaron Gamble, a counselor at the mission, talked about eternal life, salvation and receiving Jesus Christ. He stressed the importance of education, parents walking their small children to the bus stop and embracing their children’s schools.
“Don’t just love your children, fall in love with their school,” he said.
After the service the family filed outside, where they found lines that led to various goodies and games.
One line led to hot dogs, chips, cake and lemonade. Another led to backpacks filled with paper, notebooks, pencils, binders, crayons and markers.
Don’t just love your children, fall in love with their school.
Pastor Aaron Gamble
“Have a good school year,” a volunteer said as she slipped a backpack on Ebony’s back.
Other lines led to games, such as corn hole. After playing, kids received a basketball or a soccer ball. In another line, families could pick up a bag of groceries. In another area, cables held clothes on hangers.
Ebony looked and looked for polo shirts for school, but couldn’t find any.
“I don’t want to go to school now,” she said. Ayonna found a couple of shirts.
By 11:15 a.m., the family needed to get going so Rosetta Johnson could return the car she borrowed. As they left, they passed a line of new people stretching about two blocks.
“It was very helpful,” Rosetta Johnson said. “Now they have school supplies. I am just going to go home and compare it to the list” given by the schools.