FORT WORTH –– TJ can't wait to start kindergarten. The 5-year-old, soon-to-be Fort Worth ISD student jumped up and down in anticipation as volunteers handed out backpacks Wednesday at the ninth annual Tarrant County Back to School Roundup. He wanted a red one.
Brother Dorien and sister Jaiden also got their school supplies at the annual event at Will Rogers Memorial Center.
"This helps tremendously,” said their mom, Wendy Brown. “Great thing. Really helps."
Three small kids, single mom, unemployed: You'd expect Wendy Brown to be grateful for all the help she can get. Here's what many wouldn’t expect: “My bachelor's is in applied behavioral analysis, but I'm proud to say I will be starting my masters in education this fall," she said.
Brown never dreamed her kids would be among the 25,000 Tarrant County students needing free school supplies. Sponsors of Wednesday’s roundup also provided health screenings for eyes, ears and teeth. There were even free haircuts.
Any child in a low-income family who is enrolled in one of the 20 school districts inside the county is eligible for the program. Becky Mayad, a spokeswoman for the event, said more than 8,200 school supply packets were given away. Half Price Books donated 7,000 books. Walmart representatives provided 1,000 glucose screenings and 1,100 vision screenings.
Essilor Vision Foundation offered exams and fitted 60 kids for free glasses.
"When my youngest son was born he got sick and I lost my job,” Brown said. Wearing a University of North Texas t-shirt, she said she always worked until she had to stay home with her son; broken marriage is another story.
For Brown, the program is just one piece of a jigsaw puzzle she somehow fits together every day to create a picture of a better life. A tiny Fort Worth duplex is home.
"I have no income,” she said, sitting on the couch as her sons bounce around her. “We get food stamps and Medicaid."
Family members and fellow church members also kick in to help.
"We've gone through community action partners to pay electric bills," she says. Brown has been driving to UNT for the last couple years. Financial aid pays part of the rent.
"I thought, you get that degree and instantly you get a job. Didn't happen that way," she said, laughing. Laughter comes easier than money.
The YMCA provides sports for the kids. Mom provides inspiration.
"She works so hard,” says 9-year-old Jaiden. “It's, like, unbelievable."
Jaiden says her 3rd grade teacher went to TCU, and that sounds good to her, too. She got a purple backpack at Wednesday.
TJ got the red one he wanted.
Wendy Brown says her goal is to have a job this time next year, making too much to qualify for assistance.