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900 backpacks, lots of volunteers, one mission


The ZIP Code 38126 Back to School Project was propelled by volunteers. (Photos: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

As about 100 volunteers took a break after filling 900 backpacks for distribution to students – all of them – at Booker T. Washington High School and its feeder school, LaRose Elementary, Shante Avant took a moment to put the effort into perspective.

There were enough backpacks for every student at BTW High School and LaRose Elementary School. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

“This will be our third year and FedEx is our presenting sponsor, said Avant, Deputy director of the Women’s Foundation For A Greater Memphis (WFGM). “This is our ZIP Code 38126 Back to School Project and it’s focused on making sure that the families of South City have the resources that they need.”

The project aligns with WFGM’s five goals of the Vision 2020 Strategic plan to reduce poverty by five percent in ZIP Code 38126, the poorest in Memphis and one of the poorest in the nation.

With a focus on case management, employment training, early childhood education, youth development and financial literacy, WFGM has invested $3.5 million of a nearly $10 million commitment.

The supporting sponsors are Memphis Housing Authority, Memphis Health Center, Score CDC, School Seed, Shelby County Schools and Urban Strategies, Inc. They helped round up what went into the backpacks.

“It’s not only school supplies, there are also community resource folders in each backpack,” said Avant, who is also chairperson of the Shelby County Schools Board. “It has information about out of school programs, GED programs, job opportunities. We have a side in the folder for parents, and a side for students.”

Asked about measuring effectiveness, Avant noted that a year ago the South City Community Resource Room was opened in BTW. Six GED students were making use of it on Wednesday morning.

“It (the effort) is effective in that we are getting the word out about programs that are happening in this community so that folks understand and know why it is important to give back …and also the impact it is having on the families of 38126.”

Kendra Littlejohn said volunteering is good for her soul. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

Kendra Littlejohn is a veteran WFGM volunteer.

“It gives me an opportunity to share my passion and love for people,” Littlejohn said. “It really feeds my soul. It gives me the opportunity to network with other women, to be of service to other women and just overall serve my community.”

Littlejohn went to Hamilton High School (Class of ’92), which rests in a community with many of the challenges faced by residents of 38126.

“I describe 38126 as an area that is very impoverished and very in need. The Women’s Foundation is here to make every attempt to satisfy that need of ending poverty and homelessness in that ZIP Code.”

Littlejohn said she is newly unemployed and volunteering fills her time in a productive way.

“There is a really great need for more women to show up at the Women’s Foundation events to help us move this forward into the community, and not just 38126.”

The goal of reducing poverty by five percent by 2020 may seem farfetched, Littlejohn said.

“But if we get more people to help us – more donors, more activists, more volunteers, more hands, it is very much doable.”

WFGM Executive Director Ruby Bright framed by BTW student helpers, most of them athletes. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

WFGM Executive Director Ruby Bright mixed it up with some of the male students recruited to lend muscle to the backpack effort. Then she talked about how the opportunity to funnel more resources to students and their families was a cause for celebration.

“We have realized how much hope and how much concern and care that they give to their community,” Bright said of 38126 residents. “That’s really missing when we look at what is going on in our greater community.

“There are students excelling, there are students who are giving back to the community.”

That, she said, is an example of breaking the cycle of feeling like “you are not appreciated. It’s also elevating the opportunity that I can give back at any time.”

Celebrating success is a motivator, Bright said.

“Sometimes we look at what is not working too much and we don’t celebrate what is going great.”

BTW and LaRose have been classified as struggling schools and now are off that list, Bright said.

“They are in level 5. There is a lot more work to do …but overall our work has improved. I say ‘our work’ (meaning) the students’ work has improved. We feel like these are the kind of things that help motivate that. That along with volunteerism.”

It is important, Bright said, to create pathways for people to believe that the quality of life can be better.

“Every child should have an opportunity …meet them where they are and recognize them.”

DOING THE WORK – Photos by Karanja A. Ajanaku


We wanted to see how Shelby County’s poorest ZIP code has fared in the 50 years since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed at the Lorraine Motel.
What we found: Hope in the midst of hardship, and poverty perched next to progress.

View the series: https://tri-statedefender.com/category/38126/

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