Houston Living: HAWC goes back to School

School Supplies
The Houston Area Women's Center's mission is to help "individuals affected by domestic and sexual violence in their efforts to move their lives forward".   They "provide shelter, counseling, and advocacy to support them in building lives free from the effects of violence"; and "seek social change to end domestic and sexual violence through community awareness and education". The services are confidential and available to everyone.

HAWC's mission resonates with me.  Nicaragua, where I grew up, is a patriarchal society, where women are still fighting for equality and respect, where strolling down the street will warrant uninvited advances (verbal and physical) from men, and where our preservation instincts and actions will guarantee even more abuse because the "men are men" and women are supposed to be submissive, obedient objects.  Living in the US I have learned that this problem is not unique to Nicaragua, and that ignorance and abuse exists regardless of geographical location, language, religion, or race.  This is why, when many years ago my dear friend Laura Vazquez invited me, nay informed me that she was "volunteering me" to help HAWC, I couldn't refuse. At the time Laura was an advocate at HAWC's Shelter, which is a facility that provides refuge to people whose lives are in danger.  Laura is a brilliant, kind, beautiful woman; she is strong, and she is fierce in her convictions.  A person does not say "no" to Laura, so I went, and I have been going back ever since.  I am grateful to Laura for introducing me to such a noble cause.

The Houston Area Women's Center

In addition to shelter, counseling, and advocacy services, "HAWC"(as those in the know call it) organizes many events throughout the year designed to lift the financial and emotional burdens of their clients: Halloween, Holiday parties, fundraisers, and drives.  Laura's first invitation was to participate in the Halloween party: a face painter was needed for the children.  This event was for me exciting and heartbreaking at the same time.  Exciting because I wanted to help a cause in which I believe deeply; heartbreaking because it gave me a close up look to bruises and scars that are not only physical, but psychological.

Many years have passed since that Halloween party, and I have now graduated to member of a few planning committees (thanks again to Laura's invitation).  For the past couple of years I have been involved in The Back to School Project, which seeks to fulfill the school supply list of about 1300 children.

School Supplies waiting to be distributed

Supplies are acquired through fundraisers, drives, and individual donations.  The children receive all of the basic needs outlined by the Houston Public School System (HISD) plus some other special objects like personal hygiene items, clothing, and "prices".  This year the girls received little purses and the boys t-shirts; all children chose one price which ranged from colorful notebooks to lunchboxes, toothbrushes were distributed to each child, and everyone (including the toddlers) got a backpack.

The backpack is the centerpiece of the Project, not only because it is the most expensive single item HAWC has to acquire, but because it is the most special thing each child gets to choose; and here lies the key to the event:  The concept of choice, of being able to pick whatever one wants, no hand-me-downs (all items are new), no pressure, no imposition.  HAWC puts a great deal of effort in acquiring a startling variety of school bags, which are then arranged according to age, style, color, or cartoon character! 

Volunteers sort the backpacks
Planning for the Project starts early in the year and requires much coordination.  Invitations are made and sent out to companies and individuals who are encouraged to donate supplies and funds.  Resource packets for parents (which include information about health, education, and family entertainment) are prepared; and when all donations and drives have finished, the supplies are counted and allocated; the staff and volunteers then shop for any missing items.

Volunteers sort the supplies.
Volunteers receive instructions from Pam Hobbs, manager of Children's Court Services.

The week leading up to the event is the busiest.  All items need to be sorted and packaged according to age, and they need to be arranged for distribution along a predetermined (and well organized) route.  Then the distribution days arrive and the families pour in waves, waves of extroverted, shy, curious, withdrawn, but equally excited children:

The families arrive.
The families register with the staff and pick up vouchers where each child is listed according to grade and gender.  They then meet a volunteer who, aided by the voucher, will help them with their "shopping" and accompany them through the distribution route.  Along the way they receive hygiene products for the whole family, pick their prices, their purses, their t-shirts, until finally they get to choose a backpack!

A child walks the distribution route.

Even the littlest ones get a bag (which contains a toy instead of supplies), that way no one goes home empty handed:

Little brother gets a backpack!
And this is when you hear it:  "You mean I get to pick my own backpack!?" "really!? really!?", "Whatever backpack I want!?"  And you realize that you've had a good life and things that you take for granted are cherished by others; and the ability to choose for yourself (which goes beyond a simple backpack) is a gift that not everybody has.

A boy packs away his school supplies
After they pick their backpack, a volunteer takes the families to one final stop where they receive all their school supplies neatly wrapped and labeled with their respective school grade.  Then the children and their families leave.  Many of them will return for next year's Back to School Project, because sadly the circle of violence is not easy to break.

High school age kids leave with their school supplies.
Many thanks to The Houston Area Women's Center for letting me write about this important event.  For more information visit their website, or follow them on facebook or twitter.

All images courtesy of The Houston Area Women's Center


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