COAL CITY – By 8:15 a.m. Saturday, 250 people were lined up at the door of the Coal City Early Childhood Center waiting for the fair to begin.
The annual Grundy County Back to School Fair opened at 8:30 a.m., when, children who qualified for free health services and back-to-school goods were directed to a myriad of free services. By the end of the morning, more than 330 children from low-income families had been seen, United Way Executive Director Karen Nall said.
For the fifth year in a row, United Way of Grundy County partnered with the Community Foundation of Grundy County to provide services – like school health exams and supplies – that low-income parents might not be able to afford. All the families were pre-qualified by submission of family income level, Nall said. Income levels are determined by federal poverty guidelines.
Families were directed to different areas in the school where health, dental, and vision examinations, school supplies, and bags of healthy snacks were given. Appointments could be made to pick up new shoes and free children’s books, and an information expo was held in the gym.
Families expressed enthusiasm.
“It’s helpful,” said parent Karen Hood of Morris, who has been bringing her children for years to the event.
Maria Castro of Morris had her toddler son, Juan, screened by Easter Seals for developmental milestones. Her high school-aged daughter, Guadalupe Maravilla, took her high school physical.
All the services were provided free by a cadre of volunteers from different agencies, including Morris Hospital & Healthcare Centers, We Care of Grundy County, Operation St. Nick, Grundy County Transit System, Illinois School Bus, the Morris Lions Club, Friends of Christ Lutheran Church, Northern Illinois Food Bank and others.
Sixth-grader Alyssa McComb of Minooka found several mystery novels to her liking in the stacks of free books. She thought the books and the school supplies were nice. Alyssa was at the fair with her mom, Jill, and her brother, Austin, who is in eighth grade. Jill was surprised there weren’t more people in attendance.
Based on the area school’s free and reduced lunch numbers, it is believed there are as many as 3,000 children in the county who may qualify for the free services, but they don’t seem to know about the fair.
“If we get them [the families in need] to a program like this, then the schools and teachers won’t have to make up [out of pocket] for those lacking school supplies,” Nall said.
United Way is working with the area schools to increase awareness.
Volunteer optometrist Dr. Nicholas Rutkoski of Coal City, who was providing eye care, said the fair provides “a reach out to people who don’t have access to care, especially as vision goes for students; they need to see clearly.”
He said he found in the morning’s work that about 75 percent of those children who were examined needed follow-up care.
Parent Christina Wampler said she was happy that not only were her children screened by the optometrist, but that information about eye care specialists for follow-up appointments was given, as well.
Volunteer, Vicki Kahn, was working with the Friends of Christ Lutheran Church of Morris. The group was setting up appointments for later in the week so children could pick up new shoes at the church.
Kahn said seeing the children get the shoes they want is an awesome experience.
“The kids are so excited,” she said.