The girl’s Disney princess tennis shoes were muddy, her hair tied back with unkempt fly-away pieces of hair sticking out at random. Her voice was quiet, too soft to hear at times, and her smile wide. She is about to start kindergarten.
“Her little face lights up when I pick out things she likes,” Purdy said. “It’s just really sweet.”
A casual observer might have thought they were a mother-daughter pair doing back-to-school shopping, but they weren’t. They were virtual strangers until Sunday at 5 p.m.; Purdy didn’t even know her name.
Purdy was matched with the girl at the Kiwanis Back to School Program, which took place at Martins department store in Oxford. On Sunday, the store’s doors were closed to the public and opened to the Kiwanis volunteers and the children they were helping to purchase new clothes for the school year.
The program began in 1986 in partnership with the Alabama Department of Human Resources. It is funded with money generated by the civic organization’s Pancake Day, held each March.
Martins offered a 20 percent discount and a local church gave each child a mesh or clear back pack loaded with classroom basics such as glue sticks.
This year the money went to buy school clothes for 103 children in kindergarten through sixth grade. Each child had $210 to spend on shoes, shirts, jeans, dresses and other clothing items, said Alyson Mims, the incoming Kiwanis Club president.
She said she’s experienced some memorable moments in the years she’s been helping with the program.
Like the time she helped a five-year-old girl buy school clothes and found that there was money to spare. With the extra money, Mims said, she was able to buy the girl something she wanted – a pretty dress to wear for choir at church.
“You just get all kind of sweet kids and precious stories,” Mims said. “She was just hugging my neck after it was over.”
About 110 volunteers – Kiwanians, their family members, Alexandria High School’s Key Club and members of Grace Baptist Church – pitched in to help with the school shopping.
They fed the children hot dogs and pizza before the shopping time began. Parents lined up outside Martin’s with their children and waited for the shopping to begin.
Then, one by one, the children were taken inside the store to shop with a volunteer. In hand, each volunteer had a sheet listing the child’s size and needs.
They had to purchase the basics – shoes, jeans, underwear and socks. Then, they got to purchase extras – Alabama football shirts, studded leggings and colorful dresses and Dora shoes.
All the while, the parents waited outside, lined up against the store’s exterior wall, waiting for their children to return as the sun began to sink.
“I am so happy that the community has come together to do this for the children,” said Jamie, a mother who waited outside while her children shopped. The Anniston Star is identifying her only by first name to protect the privacy of her children.
Jamie’s ex-husband, Charles, waited with her. The pair are no longer married, but said they raise their children together.
“It takes a big load off of us too,” Charles said. “It frees up money for us to spend on other needs.”
The pair said their children began getting assistance from DHR after the parents received substance abuse counseling through Calhoun County’s Drug Court. Jamie said she hopes that the Drug Court, combined with help from DHR, offers her family the help it needs to break the generational pattern of poverty she’s always known.
Her kids, she said, are already giving their parents reason for great hope. They’re honor roll students, she said.
“Things like this kind of restore your hope in life,” Jamie said. “I hope this breaks the chain and that we got a better future coming. I believe we do.”
Staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter@LJohnson_Star.