Chris Baisden grew up in Hartford's Blue Hills neighborhood and graduated from Weaver High School in 1984. His daughter, a straight-A fourth grader, is following his example.
But in a city with alarming school-truancy rates, Baisden knew many kids were reluctant to return to school if they couldn't afford new clothes, a backpack or a haircut.
"If you go to school and you can't feel good about yourself or get respect from others, it's hard to focus on your education," Baisden said.
So his youth services group, Positive Steps, and other organizations launched a back-to-school celebration last September that provided about 100 needy Blue Hills students in grades K-6 with free haircuts, book bags filled with school supplies and school uniforms.
This year, the second annual "I Am The Future" School Readiness/Back To School Celebration is expanding to two locations - one in Blue Hills, the other in the South End - and aims to help as many as 500 children.
The South End celebration is scheduled Aug. 26 at Dominick Burns Elementary School on Putnam Street. The event is for Burns School students, but other neighborhood kids who show up will get book bags and supplies, as long as they last, organizers said.
The Blue Hills celebration on Blue Hills Avenue will help neighborhood kids. One-hundred of them have been selected by community service organizations, but organizers expect to hand out book bags and supplies to another 100 students on a first-come, first-served basis.
Sponsors hope eventually to expand the event citywide and reward students for strong attendance each term.
Baisden came up with the idea for "I am the Future" last year when talking to Abdul Mohammed, his boss at My People Clinical Services - a nonprofit organization that includes the Positive Steps program.
Both were troubled by Hartford's high truancy rate. On any given day in the last school year, 1,600 students were absent - about 7 percent of the district's 22,500 students.
The conversation began with haircuts.
"If I could pay to give 10 kids haircuts, I would feel really good," Baisden recalls telling Mohammed.
"Sometimes we need to stop talking and do something," Mohammed replied. "If you give 10 kids hair cuts, I'll give 10 kids haircuts, too."
That chat snowballed into the first "I am the Future" celebration last September. In addition to haircuts, supplies and clothing, the kids got free pizza and entertainment.
Each organization sponsoring the first event last year contributed $1,000. Baisden put up money out of his own pocket. "It's all worth it," he said. "It's all about the kids.
James Harris took his daughters, Jordan and Christie, then 9 and 14 respectively, to last year's event and said it was a positive eye-opener for the kids.
"[The girls] got to see that things can go on here that don't involve trouble or violence," Harris said.
Organizers hope the celebration will show kids a positive side of Hartford, despite the abundance of crime and poverty.
"All they hear about is shootings, violence and the result of poverty," said Eugene Millan of My People Clinical Services, the director of the South End site. "They don't see that they can get somewhere by valuing school. We're trying to get them more excited for school."
Millan chose Burns School for the South End site in an effort to restore a positive feeling about the school. The elementary school was locked down last spring after gunfire in the neighborhood. The incident frightened students, who cowered in corners or under desks, and panicked parents, who when they arrived that afternoon to pick up their kids found the school cordoned off and SWAT officers on the roof.
"If the last news to come out of that school was a shooting, [a positive event like this] is what they should be hearing more of," Millan said. "We don't want the kids to be scared to go to the school on the first day."
The second annual "I am the Future" celebration is scheduled Aug. 26 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Dominick F. Burns Elementary School, 195 Putnam St., and Aug. 27 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Blue Hills section between 639 and 671 Blue Hills Ave.
Anyone interested in volunteering or donating school supplies can call Positive Steps at 860-833-2863 or My People Clinical Services at 860-656-0450.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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