According to the 2018 Thurston County Point-in-Time Homeless Census Report, there were 1,670 homeless students attending public schools in the 2016-17 school year. Not to mention the census data, which reports that 10.4% of Thurston County is living below the poverty line.

Can you imagine the stress and worry that comes when these kids think about going back to school? The shame and embarrassment that haunts them, knowing they could show up on the first day with worn clothes and no school supplies?

Volunteers Packing Backpacks
Volunteers packed over 750 backpacks this year to give to children in need. Photo courtesy: Peggy Langan

This heart-breaking reality prompts many Thurston County residents to help. From school supply donation bins at grocery stores to “rounding up” a purchase at a local retailer, there is a heart and a passion in our area to help these children.

City Gates is an organization that sees this need and wants to meet it in a big way.

You’ve probably seen volunteers from City Gates sitting outside a store this summer or in the lobby of a church asking for donations for their annual backpack drive. Phil Prietto, president and founder of City Gates Ministries (CGM) says, “Lots of parents don’t know what pressure their kids will be under when they go back to school.” His goal is to help alleviate that pressure, give children the confidence and support they need to start the school year off successfully, and help connect parents to their kids and their needs.

This year, CGM had a goal of packing 700 backpacks to give to homeless and low-income Thurston County children. With the incredible generosity of our community, they packed more than 750!

Peggy Langen at Westwood Baptist Church partnered together with other volunteers to pack 300 of these backpacks with donated school supplies. This was her first year helping and she was blown away by the sheer amount of donations that came in – and continued to come in once their drive was done. “It means everything to these families,” Peggy said with a smile on her face and tears in her eyes.

Peggy and Volunteers
Peggy Langan and other volunteers at Westwood Baptist Church were blown away by the generosity of our community in providing school supplies for families in need in Thurston County. Photo courtesy: Crystal Mazzuca

On Thursday, August 9, at 6:00 p.m., CGM will host their ninth annual Back to School Backpack Give Away. The event, held at the corner of State and Adams in downtown Olympia, is more than just a time when they hand out backpacks.

Phil explained, “We have the fire department come down, a dental clinic, and a medical clinic.” Not only that, CGM give out free haircuts to these kids who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it. In addition, they have 1,500 stuffed animals to give away.

One of the most popular parts of the event is the clothes. This year, CGM has over 3,000 pounds of new and lightly used clothing for students. They allow the kids to shop alongside their parents to pick things out for the school year. It’s an incredible thing to allow these kids to choose what they want. CGM spends the entire year saving and sorting clothes for this night.

City Gates Ministries
All families are welcome and loved as they receive the help and resources they need. Photo courtesy: City Gates Ministries

“We have a lot of community support and the whole thing is very positive,” Phil said. “But what really sets us apart is prayer.” At the event, CGM encourages parents to pray for their kids and their upcoming school year – and then have the kids pray for their parents. Phil shares, “The greatest impact is that we are focused more on relationships than just the physical needs.” Phil goes on to say that they love to pray for all of the families, even if they aren’t religious.

Last year, Phil heard from one of the parents. She told him that she was a homeless single mom of five kids and felt incredibly embarrassed about her situation. When she arrived, she couldn’t believe how wonderful everything was. She felt so loved and, above all, did not feel judged. They stayed for three hours and, for that short time, she and her children were released from the stress of homelessness.

Through their connections with DSHS and the Olympia Union Gospel Mission, CGM was able to get the word out about what they could provide. They also go door to door in low income apartment complexes to meet people and develop relationships.

Once the Back to School Backpack Drive is over, CGM will launch into their next big event – Shoes of Hope. Partnered together with Samaritan’s Feet, CGM will receive 500 brand new pairs of shoes to give out to people in need in Thurston County. When they give away the shoes, they wash the feet of those receiving them. This humble act of love and service tends to impact the recipient more than the shoes themselves. In the past, hometown hero pro-football player and Timberline High School graduate Jonathan Stewart has come to support the event. Shoes of Hope will take place on September 13.

To learn more about how City Gates is impacting Thurston County or to get involved, visit their website.

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