West Valley City • At Redwood Elementary, the excitement of going back to school can often be overwhelmed by the anxiety of making ends meet. Eighty percent of the students there live at or below the poverty level.
To try to ensure that all students who walk into school for their first day of class Monday have what they need, members of the West Valley City community came together Saturday to offer a free, one-stop back-to-school shop that offered haircuts, new shoes, backpacks and other supplies.
“It’s really important to help our kids [have] the best possible start to the school year that they can,” said Jolynn Koehler, the school’s principal. “Some people have the means and the time to go get their kids haircuts and buy their kids new shoes, and some people don’t. So we like to provide the service so all the kids can come ready.”
Koehler estimated that about 350 kids — more than half the school’s student body — came to this year’s annual event.
By the time Valerie Ulibarri and her two daughters, 9-year-old Sophia Gray and 6-year-old Olivia Gray, got there, the backpacks were already gone. But Sophia and Olivia still walked out with shiny new shoes.
“I think they’re going to be really cool,” Sophia said proudly.
Ulibarri, who has come to the back-to-school drive for three straight years, said it’s an important time- and money-saving resource for low-income families.
“It’s nice to not have to worry about, you know, whether they’re going to feel comfortable on the first day of school and have nice clothes that are going to make them feel good about themselves,” she said.
Koehler said the back-to-school drive wouldn’t have been possible without the nonprofit Granite Education Foundation, and without Molina Healthcare, which has offered financial and volunteer support to the event for several years.
Brandon Hendrickson, president of Molina Healthcare of Utah, said he grew up in a family that struggled financially. This drive is one of his favorite parts of the job, he said.
It means “everything” to him to see his organization help support Redwood’s students.
“These kids, they’re going to remember this,” he said. “And this will make a difference in their school year, and they’ll grow up to be leaders in the community — a lot of it because of the service that people gave them while they were growing up. And I know it will turn around; they’ll give back.”
That’s the case for Albert Archuleta, one of the event’s volunteers. As he meticulously cut lines into a young boy’s hair at the back-to-school drive, he said giving back is how he pays his “debt to society.”
“I wasn’t always on the right track,” he said. “I just want to help. I like helping kids be better. I try to get them to do better things, not get in trouble like I did.”
Archuleta owns a Murray company called Regal Barber Co., and he came to the event to boost students’ confidence with free haircuts at the request of a former teacher, Linda Williams — who now works at Redwood Elementary and teaches one of his sons.
“He is giving back,” Williams said proudly. “He’s changing a generational dynamic.”
In addition to shoes, haircuts and backpacks, students could also pick up free socks and underwear at the event.
Other community organizations offered students and parents the chance to learn about resources outside the school. The West Valley Public Library offers free homework help, and the YMCA operates an after-school program offering students warm meals at Redwood. The National Alliance on Mental Illness also offered information about its education and support programs.
The totality of opportunities for support — from health care to outward appearance to mental health — demonstrates an important part of Redwood’s mission, Koehler said.
“One of the things that we really believe here at Redwood is that part of our job is to teach the whole child — to teach them how to be happy, to teach them how to be successful, how to get what they want in life, to teach them to interact with each other and their community,” she said. “We know that academics is not the only thing there is in the world, and that people that don’t have their basic needs met are not going to be able to focus on academics or on learning."