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Back-to-school events offer new supplies, last bit of summer fun — and chance to connect communities

With students set to go back to school on Monday, a coalition of Muslim community groups and the Baltimore police organized separate events Saturday to help kids make the most of the season's final days and to prepare for classes to start. For the organizers, the events were also a chance to break barriers and stereotypes.

"We don't want to be judged by what is being portrayed in the media," said Sabah Muktar, a staff member with the Islamic Circle of North America's ICNA Relief organization that helped put on the Warwick Park event.

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The group joined with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Baltimore Teachers Union and local health organizations KEYS Development and BACHS Healthcare to give out hundreds of backpacks and books and even free haircuts.

Many families who visited the park Saturday had never met Muslims but left expressing a positive impression.

"It's been really amazing getting that kind of feedback," Muktar said.

They also left with needed supplies. The teachers union gave out books for all ages, with offerings including one called "Born to Run!" featuring Dr. Seuss' Cat in the Hat, others about Dora The Explorer and another called "I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato." Many city children live in homes where there isn't anything to read, said Kenya Campbell, chair of the union's teacher chapter.

"We're struggling to get what we can get," said Tarrell Windman, whose 3-year-old daughter entering pre-kindergarten, Latasha Thomas, left with a new purple backpack.

Meanwhile, at Druid Hill Park, Baltimore police held a picnic offering free food, music and dancing as well as moon bounce playpens in a celebration of summer's end meant to mend ties between officers and the community.

Along with dozens of police officers in attendance were many police cadets clad in khaki pants. Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said the department recently expanded the cadets' training from six months to seven months to make time for them to attend community events like Saturday's.

"It definitely had to be done," organizer Antwan Campbell, who performs as DJ Twizz, said of the event, which he and Davis said they hope comes back annually. "The cops need us and we need them."

Janasha Jackson brought her 6-year-old son, Terry, because he wants to be a police officer one day. For others who might not have such a positive view of law enforcement, though, the event was a good step, the resident of Beechfield in Southwest Baltimore said.

"They don't get notice for the positive they do," Jackson said.

While some children were too busy playing to think about the school days ahead, others were ready for Monday.

"I can't wait to go back to school," soon-to-be fourth-grader Keshawn Gross said as a volunteer barber put the finishing touches on his haircut at Warwick Park.

"It looks fresh," his aunt, Summer Randall, told him.

Then, it was time for the next customer, a boy with a mop of summer curls and sweat dripping down his temple.

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