High temperatures did not discourage residents of all ages from attending “Back to School – Back to the Future” at Mason Park. (RoundTable photo)

It was a resource fair, fun fair and back-to-school celebration – all rolled into one nurturing, community-building experience.

Evanstonians turned out by the hundreds for “Back to School – Back to the Future” at Mason Park on Saturday, Aug. 21. The event was a multi-faceted opportunity to discover resources and enjoy food, music, games and giveaways.

Face painting, arts and crafts, and giant bounce houses with slides were popular with young attendees. Residents had a chance to talk with representatives from more than 50 organizations and learn about local services, supports and programs that contribute to the well-being of Evanston children and families.

Temperatures hovering near 90 degrees did not discourage community members from gathering safely in the expansive outdoor space at Mason Park on the last weekend before the start of school for Evanston/Skokie District 65 students, who returned to full-time in-person learning on Aug. 25.

“We really enjoyed it. We got here right at noon, and it wasn’t crowded. We got to go to every vendor, so it was very nice,” said Eva Jones, an Evanston Township High School alumna who is the parent of two children in District 65 and one child in District 202, who started back to school on Aug. 16.

The idea for a community-building event that offers one-stop access to resources, entertainment and fun came from Advocates for Action, formed in 2018 by Evanston Cradle to Career (EC2C). Advocates receive leadership training from EC2C, which equips them to empower Evanston families by sharing important information about the community and removing barriers to opportunities and resources, according to the EC2C website.

“This is our second cohort. Our first community leadership team was Advocates for Action,” EC2C Director of Community Engagement Kim Holmes-Ross told the RoundTable. “We are now with our new group, 2.0, whose vision was to have a community back-to-school event – from the community, for the community. So, we partnered with both school districts and the City of Evanston, and this is what we got.”

Volunteers worked cheerfully in the heat and humidity to ensure that the large number of attendees could participate in games, enter a raffle to win gift cards and prizes and enjoy the free food and music.

“Today, I’m helping with the raffle and the sign-in sheets for the volunteers,” said retired Fifth Ward Council member Delores Holmes, who is the mother of Kim Holmes-Ross.

The excitement, smiles, laughter and enthusiasm were signs that teamwork, collaboration and a commitment to care and learning were at the forefront for the sponsors and the multitude of local organizations that hosted resource tables.

In conversations with a reporter from the RoundTable, attendees and organizers alike expressed their appreciation for the event.

“I thought the event was amazing.  Students, parents, community partners, elected officials – all there to support and promote care and access to care in this amazing community,” said Dr. Keith Robinson, Associate Principal for Educational Services at ETHS, after attending the event. “I feel blessed to have been there. I also loved that it was at Mason Park, centralized in the City. I’m looking forward to this year!”

Said an ETHS freshman who rode his bike to the event: “I learned about this when my parents showed me a text message that they had received. My mom and my dad wanted me to come over here, and it looks pretty fun.”

Latino Advisory Committee volunteer and “freshman mom” Mayra Moreno. (Photo by Heidi Randhava)

Mayra Moreno stood behind a resource table decorated with a blue and orange Wildkit covering, colorful star-shaped balloons, and giveaways including pens, pencils and flyers with meeting dates for the ETHS Latino Advisory Committee / Comite Asesor Latino de ETHS.

“I am a parent volunteering for the Latino Advisory Committee,” said Moreno, adding that she is a “freshman mom.”

“Many of us here represent different ETHS organizations that share information with families about the resources that each of us provide to our communities within ETHS,” she added. “I’m getting to know ETHS by getting involved with different things that are happening inside the school. I’ve been able to learn more, so that I can also share that information with others that come along the way.”

Moreno, who works in the District 65 Family Center, also shared some thoughts about the importance of supports at every stage of parenthood.

“I am a family support advocate for moms who are pregnant and their children up to three years old, and I support families in the transition to pre-school… I appreciate the opportunity to get to know more about ETHS because some of the families I work with have older kids, and… the more that I know, I can better support the families I work with in the community,” she said.

District 65 Superintendent Dr. Horton and family spent the afternoon at the community-wide back-to-school event. (Photo by Heidi Randhava) Credit: Heidi Randhava

District 65 Superintendent Dr. Devon Horton and his family spent the afternoon at the event.

“It’s awesome,” he said.

“It’s great to be in this environment, with the City, the two school districts and Evanston Cradle to Career uniting. There is really good energy – the food, the families, the fun – and the organizations that have come out to share their resources with families. It’s just a great experience for us all. I’m looking forward to continuing to do this, and making it even bigger,” said Dr. Horton.

Amanda Wright, who attended the event with her family, said it was “really fun for all. I’m just so glad to see the Evanston community come together and provide resources for all the Evanston residents. Great job, City of Evanston,” said Wright.

Rachel Kelly, an intern for Rainbows for all Children, said she volunteered to get involved in the event after being contacted by a “Back to School” community engagement director.

“It’s really cool. It’s nice seeing all these kids, and it’s interesting to see so many families interested in this program. It feels nice, being able to help people,” Kelly said.

Founded in 1983, Rainbows is an international nonprofit that trains volunteers at community-based sites to lead structured, age-specific support groups for children and teens ages 3 to 18, who are grieving as a result of traumatic loss.

Nicole Parker is co-facilitator of the ETHS Black Advocacy Network (EBAN) and ETHS History and Social Science Department Chair.

“EBAN is in its 13th year. We are excited to welcome all families that are supporting Black student achievement and well-being at the high school. We have our first meeting on Sept. 21, and we’re also partnering with the ETHS Black Caucus at ETHS Open House, on Aug. 30 from 6:30 to 8 p.m., to welcome families back into the building,” said Parker.

ETHS College and Career Support Specialist Llyoandra Cooper is a co-chair of the ETHS Black Caucus, which is comprised of ETHS staff members who identify as Black or African American.

“We are a group of staff members here to support all of our ETHS families, and especially our families who identify as Black or African American. One of the things we do is… celebrate our young people at the annual program of the Black Caucus Honor Roll Breakfast. This year, we’re restructuring a bit to make ourselves a hub of information for… anything that helps our students succeed as we’re coming back into in-person instruction… We’re excited for a good year,” said Cooper.

Girls Play Sports Youth Advisory board members (from left) Cherie Animashaun, Lara Murphy (Board liaison), Dawson Wright, Olivia Ohlson and Maya Wallace. (Photo by Heidi Randhava)

Girls Play Sports (GPS) is a nonprofit dedicated to fostering leadership skills and confidence in girls in a wide variety of sports. Members of the GPS staff, board of directors and their new youth advisory board, made up of 10 ETHS students, were on hand to pass along information about the program. GPS engages girls, grades 3 to 8, in multiple sports without a long-term or high-priced financial commitment.

“Girls Play Sports is bridging the opportunity gap through generous scholarships as well as an inclusive no-tryouts approach, paired with sports sampling that promotes healthy activity for all girls in Evanston,” said Associate Executive Director Mary Collins.

Rico Sanchez, Youth Job Center Senior Manager, Programs & Partnerships – North, said, “This has been a great experience, working with and seeing all the different families and different community partners. I just really enjoyed the whole experience.”

Moran Center for Youth Advocacy Executive Director Patrick Keenan-Devlin said he arrived at the event an hour early, at 11 a.m., and had been talking to “families, kids and community members about our services” throughout the day.

“Coming out today is a reminder of how interconnected we are as a community. And also how rich we are in resources. Often, people say about Evanston that the nonprofit community is siloed and segregated. I think today you see… that we actually work together beautifully in creating a fabric of support for families. I think this is a beautiful visual of that,” said Keenan-Devlin.

“It’s a beautiful day – a great turnout,” said City Council member Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward.

“We’re so glad to partner with all of the organizations and community groups that came out to support this event by sharing their resources for parents of incoming students to Districts 65 and 202. I also want to underscore our community partners… We’re looking forward to an amazing school year,” said Braithwaite.

Advocates for Action 2.0 member Amber Williams-Lyons said the back-to-school event is one of many community functions organized by the group.

“There are all kinds of opportunities, including a community building grant that we’re going to offer in the fall,” said Williams-Lyons.

Online grant applications, available on the EC2C website, support individuals and groups that want to make their local communities better places to live and raise families, according to information on their website.

Sharon Weeks represented the NAACP Evanston/North Shore Branch at the event.

“This is a wonderful gathering. There are so many wonderful faces that I don’t normally get to see. Everybody is out, and we are celebrating. We are picking up great material, great information, having wonderful conversations – good food, music.

“And this is a great way to start the school year off – just by gathering all kinds of information to keep us safe, to keep us healthy, and to keep us in the know. So, it’s been terrific!” said Weeks.

The event featured resources tables staffed by representatives from Youth Job Center, Wintrust Bank, Right at School, Rainbows for All Children, Primera Group, PEER Services, Open Studio Project, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Oakton Community College, Naomi’s Neighbors, NAACP Evanston Branch, Mudlark Theater, Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, Monkee Paint, MetroSquash, Metropolitan Family Services, Janee’ V Towns Foundation, Infant Welfare Society of Evanston, iKandi Hair Academy, “I Hope They Understand” author Juleya Woodson, HER Drive, Margaret and Vanessa Dillingham, Giving Storeroom, Girls Play Sports, First Student Transportation, FinFit Life, Focused Ministries, Family Focus, Evanston/Skokie School District 65, Evanston Township High School District 202, Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse, Evanston Public Library, Evanston Fight for Black Lives, Evanston Cradle to Career A4A Raffle, Evanston CASE, ETHS Latino Advisory, NorthShore/ETHS Health Center, ETHS Academic Support, ETHS Black Advocacy Network, ETHS Black Caucus, District 65 Nutritional Services, District 65 Human Resources, District 65 ESCCA (Evanston School Children’s Clothing Assoc.), District 65 Family Center, District 65 CREATE Teacher Residency Program, District 65 Bilingual Parent Advisory Committee, District 65 School Aged Childcare, Connections for the Homeless, City of Evanston – Youth & Young Adult, Childcare Network of Evanston and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Heidi Randhava is an award winning reporter who has a deep commitment to community engagement and service. She has written for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.