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Back-to-school event tackles great need

Kim Kennedy of Ponder, together with her four children and husband, stood outside the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church gym bright and early 8 a.m. on a Saturday.

So did more than an estimated 900 people — many of whom arrived around 6:30 a.m. — for free haircuts, vision screenings, health education, backpacks and school supplies.

The requirements? Bring your kids and stand in line. Droves of families from Denton and beyond stood hours in advance for help gearing up for a better school start.

“This is definitely a tremendous help,” Kennedy said, mentioning that her husband recently lost his job. “We were standing in line for hours, but it’s worth it for all that we need.”

Nonprofit Health Services of North Texas held its Good Start Back to School event for a fourth year, this year being the first outside of Rayzor Ranch. Forty volunteers and 13 community partners rallied to address an undeniable demand.

Teri Johnson, community outreach director for Health Services of North Texas, said the event is purposefully organized on the same day as the Apple Tree Project, a fellow back-to-school charity event that is sponsored by Interfaith Ministries. The Apple Tree event, which served an estimated 1,500, was held at Calhoun Middle School this year.

The Good Start Back to School event supplements the Apple Tree project as families are required to register in advance for the latter, while Good Start is first come, first served.

Johnson said, “There is truly a genuine need that many of these families can’t meet. Our goal is to give them a confident start for the school year and connect them to health services.”

Johnson initiated a back-to-school program when she first began her position as community outreach director for Health Services of North Texas in 2012, but only a meager number of families attended the outdoor event that later became Good Start.

“We’ve definitely grown out of our parking lot,” she said.

The program, which demands about six months of advance preparation, now draws scores of people and is heavily grant-driven. Johnson reached out to Immaculate Conception for a potential partnership because of the boisterous growth.

Monica Moen, a parish nurse at Immaculate Conception since 2010, said the ministry has previously collaborated with Health Services of North Texas for Health and Wellness Promotion Day, an event spearheaded by Monsignor King Outreach Center that offers free health screenings and flu shots each October.

The ministry was inspired to offer a safer, indoor venue for the hundreds of families who make it out each year when social workers described the many needs faced by thousands of area students.

More than 9,700 Denton ISD students qualified for free meals during the 2013-14 school year, according to a community needs assessment organized by United Way. The figure was staggering to Moen when she first heard it.

“It made me more aware of the great need many face in the community,” Moen said. “Having the event here offers a safer place for them.”

MATT PAYNE can be reached at 940-566-6845.