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Back to School Fair helps about 1,000 in Aurora

Abel Barrer8 chooses book minerals rocks Back To School Fair Saturday Harkness Center Aurora.
Mary Beth Nolan~For Sun-Times Media

Abel Barrera, 8, chooses a book on minerals and rocks at the Back To School Fair Saturday in the Harkness Center Aurora. Mary Beth Nolan~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 6, 2012 6:24AM

Ten-year old Jorge Mendez had his pearly white teeth cleaned and a fluoride treatment in a mobile dental office located in a kitchen of the John Harkness Community Center of First Presbyterian Church.

“The dentist put vitamins on my teeth — it tasted like berries,” the youngster said.

On Saturday, about 1,000 families put aside the swimming towels and other summer activities to attend the annual Back to School Fair — a one-stop-shopping event sponsored by Communities In Schools, a nonprofit resource for Aurora’s public schools.

The five-hour fair has been held for the past 17 years to help low-income families get their children ready for a new school year with required medical exams, immunizations and supplies.

Jorge said he was feeling ready for school. “I like doing math, especially multiplication,” the fifth-grader said.

Although the line around the corner of Fourth Street and Downer Place was going relatively quickly, the air-conditioned gymnasium provided some respite as temperatures reached the upper 80s by late morning.

Some parents held wide-rimmed umbrellas while their kids instinctively took cover under parkway shade trees. Organizers added cold bottled water stations and music to lighten the mood. Parents said it was worth the wait.

For the first time, Aunt Martha’s and the Visiting Nurses Association of Fox Valley parked their mobile health clinics at the curbside to make it easier for families to get their wellness checks and immunizations.

For the second year, the Aurora Interfaith Food Pantry distributed food supplies a couple of blocks away. The Aurora Golden Kiwanis Club and the Aurora Kiwanis Noon Club distributed supplies and books to the families. The Aurora Public Library’s bookmobile also was available.

The free dental services were provided by the nonprofit organizations Aurora Children’s Dental Services and Miles for Smiles.

“A lot of the kids have never been to the dentist because families cannot afford it,” Aurora dentist Narda Coronado said.

The Back to School Fair began in 1995 originally by the grass-roots movement “Project Unity” in response to the slayings of two teenagers on the streets of Aurora — Aurora Central Catholic High School basketball star Moshe Rogers and a few months earlier another innocent bystander Armando Mendez.

“We wanted to make some sense of these senseless deaths,” original founding member Diane Picciuolo said.

Picciuolo said the Aurora Police Department and Alderman Sheketa Hart-Burns were key supporters in the success of the fair in those early days.

“We ran out of school supplies, and police made special trips to area stores and Alderman Hart-Burns approached the city for help to cover the unexpected cost for supplies.

“It has evolved into a well-oiled machine,” Picciuolo said. “It makes me feel good to see it continue and children are getting prepared for school, but it is unfortunate we have to provide the services.”

Theresa Shoemaker, director of Communities In Schools, said it costs roughly $50,000 to host the event, made possible through outreach, fundraisers and support from the city.

“We expect to see around 3,000 children,” Shoemaker said.

“I am willing to arrive early and stand in line,” said Tanya Glass, an Aurora mom of six children ages 18 to 5. “The kids have already started to get to bed early — they know the routine,” Glass said.

Kari Smith of Montgomery and her four children — ages 4, 8, 9 and 12 — said they have had fun in the backyard swimming pool this summer, but like the other families they recognize that school is around the corner.

“It’s difficult to get school supplies for four kids,” Smith said.

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