Back to school can be incredibly stressful; combine that with the uncertainty of COVID-19, and children have enough to worry about than where to get a backpack and supplies.
To ease that burden and create a sense of stability, Patrick “PJ” Balzer and his wife Catherine Gutierrez, of The King’s Kids Christian Outreach in Mastic Beach, and their group have been facilitating yet another back-to-school drive this year.
“As someone who works in a neighboring district administrating an early literacy program, I see how detrimental it can be to a child’s learning not to have what they need to learn,” said Gutierrez of why the school drive is so important. “I have also personally been on both sides as a child. This specific outreach for me is personal and undoubtedly my calling.”
For over seven years, the couple and their group have been handing out hundreds of backpacks and supplies to area children in need. The back-to-school drive started with one mom asking for help with purchasing a backpack and supplies, and has since grown to 20 backpacks the following year, all the way up to 350 two years ago. Last year, due to the pandemic, the group was able to collect and give out about 150, but this year they hope to resume higher numbers again.
“When we did the event in the parking lot, we were able to give out 350 backpacks. It was huge,” Balzer recalled. “It makes a difference.”
Teachers, he explained, have even expressed that a number of kids come into school the first day not prepared, which often puts a burden on the teachers to get supplies out of their own pockets.
“The King’s Kids Christian Outreach is providing a great service to students and families in our community who may find themselves in need of a little extra help this time of year,” said a William Floyd School District spokesperson. “We are grateful for local community groups like The King’s Kids who come together in a positive way to help make a difference. The William Floyd school community has shown time and again that it is filled with the most generous and caring folks around.”
Devon Campbell was once a recipient of the program and is now a volunteer.
“I was one of PJ’s youth group members, volunteers at The King’s Kids Kitchen and back-to-school outreach,” he said. “One thing I can say is you could definitely feed God’s presence when I was there. I thank PJ for everything that he has done and will continue to do for the town and the world.”
This year’s event will be held at in the Brookhaven Aquatic Center parking lot in Mastic Beach on Aug. 21 from 3 to 5 p.m. for William Floyd residents, though no one will be turned away.
Supplies are still needed. This year Balzer estimates 500 children will participate. To donate, reach out to Balzer on Facebook or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations are also being accepted via their GoFundMe: https://www.gofundme.com/f/cescsa-change-for-change?qid=7d163ddb10b38a315d1ee8dde5e4be13.
“Kids are especially nervous this year with not really knowing what’s going on,” he added. “We want to give them that stability.”