Backpack Giveaway

Heat didn’t discourage volunteers or students from attending Mary Nelson’s Eighth annual Youth Day Barbecue and Backpack Giveaway.

Event volunteer Dale Johnson hands a backpack to Janysia Turner, 6, who will begin second grade in September. Her sister, Talysia Turner, 9, looks on. She also received a backpack and will be starting fourth grade.

More than 9,000 backpacks filled with school supplies were available for students Saturday during the event held at the corner of South Salina Street and Wood Avenue. Backpacks were distributed from the KeyBank parking lot.

Nelson, organizer of the event, spoke to the crowd just before the giveaway telling parents to do the right thing with the recent stimulus money.

“Use that $200 wisely. Today kids are going to get free school supplies, so spend that money for back-to-school clothes,” she said.

The government deposited $175 million into the accounts of families receiving food stamps or welfare Tuesday, Aug. 11. No restrictions were actually put on how the money could be spent, but parents received a letter encouraging them to use the money for back-to-school costs.

Nelson stressed to each parent what that money should be used for.

“Do the right thing,” she said. “And I know you know what the right thing to do is.”

Nelson recognized all the volunteers who helped and asked all the youth in attendance to turn and face their parents and say thank you. In addition, all youth recited a pelage to stay focused on their education and make good decisions before lining up to receive their new backpack.

Fallon Baxter, a first-time volunteer and mother of this year’s youngest volunteer – Mylah Baxter, 3 ½ —  says she wanted to be here to help the community.

“My family came, and it’s a good cause,” she said. Mylah, her daughter, will use her free school supplies when she begins pre-kindergarten at Dr. King Magnet Elementary School.

Also supporting the event were several community representatives and groups such as Say Yes to Education, the American Red Cross, the Syracuse City School District Parent Partnership Network, Onondaga Library, Cornell University Nanobiotechnology Center, a free tutoring service provided by Murrray Learning Services, the Southwest Community Center and many others.

Returning volunteer Dale Johnson oversaw the final step in the giveaway: handing backpacks to each student.

He has helped Nelson for the last couple years, first approaching her because of a need he saw for young athletes. He helped add a collection of sports equipment to the event.

During her speech, Nelson also spoke with disappointment from some negative comments she has received on her Web site.

Mary Nelson, organizer of the Eighth annual Youth Day Barbecue, speaks to the crowd Saturday afternoon before the backpack giveaway begins.

Mary Nelson, organizer of the Eighth annual Youth Day Barbecue, speaks to the crowd Saturday afternoon before the backpack giveaway begins.

“For seven years, the money for this event came from my own pockets,” she said. “I’m tried of the nastiness I’m seeing online. My nephew died due to street violence, and I want to see these kids stay in school and avoid that.”

Last year’s national attention from appearing on the “Live with Regis and Kelly” show provided $50,000 in funds for her volunteer work. This summer, she opened the Mary Nelson Youth Center at 2849 S. Salina St. and received 501c nonprofit status. Her goal with this event and the center is to keep kids focused on education and off the streets.

Nelson supporters filled the rooms and hallways during her youth center’s grand opening in June. Overheard comments from such supporters suggested bigger and better things still to come for Mary Nelson.

“On three say Oprah,” said one friend as they took a photo with Mary, prophesying that she’ll soon get a call from the well-known personality to appear on her talk show.

For now, Nelson will continue to help students in need through programs offered at the center and by continuing to distribute remaining school supplies to students in need. Backpacks and supplies can still be picked up at the center.

For more photos from this event, visit our flick site.


— Photos and story by Ashley Hanry

Q&A with Mary Nelson

Q. What do you feel is the biggest problem young people face in Syracuse?
A. Not staying focused and being followers not leaders.

Q. Do you think that you will ever stop doing the Youth Day Barbecue?

A. Never. I will continue both the Youth Day Barbecue and the youth center. I also plan to open a school the first of the year.

Q. Do you believe that anything good has become of the South Side?

A. I love where I live. I would never move from here. I hope to build it up and hope others will do the same and build it up also.

Q. Are there any additional goals you wish to accomplish?

A. I want to see my school open.

—  Q&A by Ralithia Dennis, The Stand’s summer intern