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SF families receive free back-to-school goodies at Tenderloin nonprofit

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More than half of The City’s students meet national low-income criteria that qualifies them for free school lunches. (Sarahbeth Maney/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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Darlene Gonzalez pointed to a blue Costco bag resting at her feet, stuffed to the brim with notebooks, pairs of socks, jeans and jackets. “This is more than $200 right here,” the mother of three said.
Gonzalez, who is formerly homeless, makes about $600 per month and supports her daughters on her fixed income.

“I’m shopping for them all,” she said. “Low-income families really cannot afford all this stuff.”
Many of The City’s school-aged youth are mentally preparing to return to the classrooms on Monday, and some parents are finding themselves struggling to support them.

Of the some 55,613 students enrolled in the San Francisco Unified School District last year, more than half meet national low-income criteria that qualify them for free school lunches.

But Gonzalez’s daughters will go back to school in style — equipped with new backpacks, outfits and, hopefully, a newfound confidence. On Wednesday, they were among some 200 children from low-income families who turned out for the St. Anthony Foundation’s annual “Back to School Day,” a school supply giveaway fair that is now in its sixth year.

All of the items offered at the giveaway were free to participating families — donated through St. Anthony Foundation’s Free Clothing Program, located across the street from St. Anthony’s Tenderloin Medical Clinic at 150 Golden Gate Ave., where the giveaway took place. Other contributions came from the nonprofit’s partners, including audio technology company Dolby Laboratories Inc.

In response to a growing need in the local community, the nonprofit for the first time this year expanded the event to span two days, serving 400 students in kindergarten through 12th grades.

“When people think of the Tenderloin, they often think of single guys, homeless, single-room-occupancy hotels. But these days, the character of the neighborhood is completely changing,” said Anthony Singer, a spokesperson for St. Anthony’s. “There’s lots of families, lots of young, low-income families.”

Going back to school is inherently stressful for many young people, it can be especially challenging for those in need, said Singer, adding that St. Anthony’s attempted to “meet families where they are at.”
But the giveaway offered participating families much more than a free hand-out.

Several colorful racks of new jackets, pants, T-shirts and skirts lined the interior of the nonprofit’s auditorium, neatly organized and divided into “girls and boys” sections. Table booths carried boxes of socks, underwear, books and backpacks filled with school supplies that ranged from erasers to scientific calculators.

About a dozen volunteers stood by to help parents and children find what they needed.

“We are their personal shoppers today,” said volunteer Stephanie Cisco.

Families were required to pre-register for the event and were admitted as small groups in 45 minute-intervals.

“It’s like you’re shopping — you are in command,” said Sophie Maletsky, a St. Anthony’s volunteer of around two decades. “It’s about you being in control of your life. It’s not like a handout, it’s something that’s helping you have a step up.“

Maletsky helped man an arts and crafts booth where younger children could tinker and get their faces painted as their parents shopped.

Gonzalez’s daughter, sixth grader Fatima Sierra Jiron, 12, sported a happy-face emoji painted on one cheek. “I’m happy,” she said, walking out of St. Anthony’s after checking a blue and white school uniform off of her shopping list. “I feel like a new student.”

Waverly Watlington III, 9, inspected himself wearing a red-and-white winter coat in a mirror set up in the middle of the auditorium.

“We don’t come for it unless we really need it,” said Watlington’s father, a retired carpenter, also named Waverly. “And when we don’t come for it, I know that there’s probably a family or two that would be able to benefit from it.”

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