Fort Worth event distributing free school supplies draws huge crowd

FORT WORTH -- About 25,000 people waited hours in the triple-digit heat Thursday as bigger-than-expected crowds showed up for free backpacks, pencils and paper at the sixth annual Tarrant County Back to School Roundup.

The sluggish economy and increased advertising drove an unprecedented demand, officials said. The event was also expanded to include middle and high school students. About 12,000 children preregistered for the event, a 50 percent increase from the 8,000 served last year.

The roundup, put on by the county, school districts, state agencies, nonprofits and corporate sponsors, is available to low-income families that live or attend schools in Tarrant County.

"It was very hot, but it's worth it because money is very rare in my house right now," said Nikki Lee, whose daughter Karnika, 17, is starting her senior year at Fort Worth's Dunbar High School.

Organizers turned away about 50 families that had not signed up ahead of time, directing them to the United Way's 211 First Call for Help to connect with other agencies or organizations, said Judi Ketchum, roundup board president.

Parents holding entry vouchers began lining up before dawn, and by midmorning families reported a wait of more than two hours at the Will Rogers Memorial Center. By 11 a.m., three hours after the event began, the lines outside dwindled.

Mary Ledesma of Fort Worth arrived at 4:45 a.m. for supplies for five grandchildren who attend Lake Worth schools. She set up chairs and fed the children cereal during the wait.

Once inside the Amon G. Carter Jr. Exhibits Hall, parents and children traveled to booths to get free vision screenings, immunizations and toothbrushes. Seven people were treated for heat-related illnesses, and one was taken to a hospital because of a pre-existing heart problem, Ketchum said.

Noemi Guzman's two sons and two daughters had wet hair from trims provided by students from the Ogle School.

"Last year, I paid $40 for each kid for supplies," said Guzman, of Fort Worth. "That's why I came here."

Jessamy Brown, 817-390-7326